Cinematic Adaptability: Our Review of ‘Ash Is Purest White’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - March 21, 2019
Cinematic Adaptability: Our Review of ‘Ash Is Purest White’

It’s obvious to write that Jia Zhangke’s films look at contemporary hyper capitalist China. But he manifests that observation through different styles. The World, about the workers of an amusement park, feels like a documentary with a dramatic end. Meanwhile A Touch of Sin shows four vignettes throughout his country. That has a slick aesthetic that helped make it Jia’s most popular film so far. Ash Is Purest White feels like a happy middle between the two films even though it’s very much a narrative film. Even from its beginnings, to shows traces of the life of Qiao (Zhao Tao) starting with where she’s at in 2001 and moves forward from there.

By letting Qiao’s life unfold, the film already hints at its ambitions, to which it mostly succeeds. She is loyal to two men in her life. The first is her father, who enjoys the occasional drink and with that, he goes on the radio to rant about the death of socialism. They live in Datong, a mining town in Northern China and, as mining towns go, jobs there are becoming more scarce. To support her father she has to go and work at a bar and mahjong parlor. As young women are, she has a boyfriend, Bin (Liao Fan), who hangs out at the parlor a lot.

Bin is also a gangster, and Qiao’s relationship with him puts her life on danger. Sure, Jia will indulge himself on some cliches. Bin, like most men in Datong, watch movies that influence not just his behavior. It also influences the younger men who vie for the same power that he has. Thankfully, ‘live and die by the gun’ is not one of the cliches Jia use. Bin is a merciful gangster to a fault, even forgiving the young hoodlums who assaulted him. Qiao does her best to embody that quality but she’s the one who crosses her limits.

One of those confrontations go too far, which makes Qiao fire warning shots at yet another group of young hoodlums. Possessing and using an illegal weapon in China is, well, illegal, and costs her five years in jail. And in her incarceration, Jia’s critique of contemporary Chinese culture becomes more apparent. Her sister visits her and informs her that the system is moving her to another prison. Audiences are knowledgeable of how the detainees move between jails. But we can see the parallels of that to the struggle of the men in her life who have to move out of Datong if they want to have the jobs that fit their skills.

Ash Is Purest White shows the similarities between confinement and freedom. Five years passes, Qiao is free but a nomad, going to Guandong in the south because she heard that Bin lives there now. Her freedom makes it apparent that she’s a pawn, having to move from one part of the country to another, living an unstable life. She sees small cities grow. Instead of bars, there are town squares with buskers singing pop ballads. These squares have animals in demeaning cages. The film’s color palette, which was cool and grainy, now has too much sunlight.

Jia is mostly good at commenting on larger issues. And it’s understandable that it should make hints at other topics lest it becomes too much of a national metaphor. I’m also taking censorship in consideration here. Immigration is a topic that the film touches on, especially on how Chinese companies want to move jobs, and thus, people to Xinjiang, which is now home to ‘terrorist camps’. It’s just really frustrating that the film contends with its own goals or outside forces. And thus, it can’t push the envelope and tell us what’s really happening in a place that the characters can’t even go to.

Although not really a distracting one, Ash Is Purest White‘s other flaw is its personal aspects. Qiao’s love and loyalty is understandable and is also a quality that not all the characters share. Her love for Bin is now unrequited but she pushes on, finding ways for him to meet her and talk to her. Jia doesn’t turn them into stereotypes, she doesn’t become too obsessive and Bin doesn’t become too sadistic. But this still means that Jia’s gonna draw out plot points to keep these two people together even if they shouldn’t be.

Nonetheless, there are benefits to how Ash is Purest White is about Bin as much as it is about Qiao. These two people represents problems with adaptability. He loses the physical peak he has in 2001. He still wants a younger wife and other things he’ll never have. She on the other hand doesn’t want to adapt and keeps to the gangster morality that he teaches her. In a way, they’re not just emblematic of the Chinese old guard but similar ones across the world. And it’s this kind of character familiarity that that makes us enjoy this film’s observations.

Ash Is The Purest White starts tomorrow at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

  • Release Date: 3/22/2019
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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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