There is poetry to be found throughout the realist filmography of Jia Zhangke, which tracks the rapid pace at which developing technology and culture have transformed present-day China. Jia records the microscopic impacts of the dramatic political, social, and moral changes that have marked individuals, preserving social history within cinematic memory. There is a deep concern for his country that reveals itself when one stops to “see things slowly.”
Ash Is Purest White, his most recent work, again starring his wife and muse, the magnetic Zhao Tao, is a sprawling, 18-year love story of a couple living on the margins of society. The story is told in three parts, a similar triptych structure to his previous feature, Mountains May Depart (2015). Drawing inspiration from his own unused footage from Unknown Pleasures (2002),set in Datong, and Still Life (2006), set in Fengjie around the Three Gorges Dam, respectively, Jia sets the first and second segments of Ash story in those same locations. Zhao Tao’s character, Qiao, is likewise a concoction of some of her roles in Jia’s earlier films, visibly echoed in the design of her costumes (identical to that in Still Life), and also in her recurring UFO sightings. In Ash, the passage of time is primarily suggested though changing technology. Cell phones evolve from primitive flip phones to iPhone XS, and dilapidated trains develop into the futuristic high-speed rail networks in China today.
The film opens in the jianghu underworld of Datong, with local gangster, Bin (Fan Liao), and Qiao, his charismatic girlfriend. Bin runs a mahjong parlor and nightclub, where each night its customers repeatedly dance to the Village People’s “YMCA.” Here, the jianghu members mix liquors as in a brotherly blood ritual, each of them pouring from a bottle into a communal bowl before toasting to loyalty, brotherhood, and righteousness. Bin is revered by his peers, who turn to him for advice and peacekeeping efforts within their criminal community. Meanwhile, Qiao holds her own in otherwise all-male company, her presence naturally commanding their affection and respect. Zhao renders Qiao as smart and well-intentioned in her concern for others, no mere accessory to Bin.
It is in this first act that their love for each other is at its most passionate. Their mutual adoration and dependence upon each other is clear as they seamlessly share cigarettes with one another—sharing, perhaps, the same uninterrupted breath. They wander around mountaintops and reflect upon the dormancy of a nearby volcano and the purity of its ash, observing that “anything that burns at high temperatures is made pure.”
The film’s Chinese title, Jianghu Er Nv (Sons and Daughters of Jianghu), evokes the idea of men and women who are unafraid to love and hate, but nonetheless live by moral principles. The word “jianghu” literally means “rivers and lakes,” but the essence of the word is difficult to capture in English. In contemporary usage, the word brings to mind a criminal underworld that challenges mainstream society whilst upholding a code of honor. The film reflects changes in people’s traditional values by juxtaposing the older righteous generation with the younger generation, whose moral failings are evident in their abandonment of traditional jianghu values.
The rift in Qiao and Bin’s relationship begins to reveal itself in two brilliantly choreographed long takes as a younger, rival gang of hooligans attack Bin in a public square—a location that the film will revisit in each of its three sections. The first take is devoted to Bin as he attempts to fend off the mindless brutes, while the second follows Qiao as she takes charge of the situation in order to save him. She fires a gun, propelling the attackers into silence. As the camera slowly closes in on her face, it becomes clear that she is well aware of the implications of her actions. Nevertheless, she maintains her composure, for her motivation to protect Bin is stronger than her fear of the law. Bin never visits her after she’s imprisoned for five years for possession of the illegal weapon, and, upon her release, she sets out to find him. Later on, when Qiao returns to the public square, her irreversible act is evoked, the past lingering on inexorably.
Qiao’s character arc develops from devoted girlfriend to professional swindler in her quest to find Bin, and Zhao’s elegant performance shifts effortlessly from the comedic to the emotionally restrained. Simultaneously, Jia illustrates how time shapes his characters and their personalities, as it has shaped his home country. Jia has stated that “time holds the secrets of life, stories and experiences” and he invites us to meditate upon how we experience time, whether it seems to move at a glacial pace or to vanish abruptly before our very eyes. At no point does he purposefully guide viewers’ emotions through stylized camera movement or dramatic music; his naturalistic approach instead encourages a deeper, more organic feeling. Jia’s quiet techniques are accentuated by the cinematography of Eric Gautier, a frequent collaborator of Olivier Assayas. The use of different digital formats (Mini DV, HD, 2K, and 4K) allows Gautier to create a delicate mix of digital textures. The use of 2K and 4K, especially when in direct contrast with the other formats, showcases the extraordinary landscape surrounding the characters, whilst also evincing a remarkable sensitivity during the long unbroken takes that follow Qiao and Bin’s conversations. Most impressive is a ten-minute single take in a hotel room at the emotional climax of the film, in which Qiao confronts Bin for his disloyalty and the camera intimately captures their subtle facial reactions and body language.
Jia’s films do not, as a rule, require an in-depth knowledge of modern Chinese politics and governmental developments. Nevertheless, understanding his passionate cultural commentary on China’s political history allows for an appreciation of the depth and poignancy of his work. There are background allusions to the coal mining protests in Datong, as well as The Three Gorges Dam, an important metaphor for displacement and the advancing technologies imposed upon Chinese landscapes. This hydroelectric dam has displaced over 1.3 million people, who had no choice but to relocate to more developed and prosperous areas, an issue Jia addressed in Still Life. With Ash Is Purest White, it is possible to contemplate how, through time and circumstance, a person can be displaced from your life, as if Qiao and Bin were themselves each other’s true home.
Ash Is the Purest White is laced with peculiar and striking moments, from melancholic ballroom dancing and wedding crashing to the aforementioned UFO sighting, but it’s the period of time over which Bin and Qiao’s relationship takes place that provides the true emotional core of the film. In an early meandering conversation between the two:
“Does time move slowly with me?”
“Enjoy the moment.”