A tapestry romance unfurled alongside China’s industrialization after the turn of the millennium, “Ash is Purest White” is a capstone work for director Jia Zhangke. With recent works such as 2013’s pulp anthology “A Touch of Sin” and the decades-spanning love triangle of 2015’s “Mountains May Depart,” the director’s latest represents the total fruition of his new winding, more commercial form of melodrama, as well as his undergirding investigation of China’s political economy. “Ash is Purest White” thrives off of this contradiction.
Beginning in the year 2001, dancer Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her main squeeze Bin (Liao Fan) are both members of jiang-hu, Chinese gangsters. The two go out at night, dancing until dawn to Village People’s “YMCA,” and hang out with all the boys during the day. Their gang is engaged in a turf war, though the details are oblique. Bin’s boss gets knocked off, and, soon enough, the rival gang comes for him. When a street brawl begins to turn to bloodshed, Qiao fires Bin’s illegally possessed firearm skyward to save her lover. She gets five years in the clink for it. When she gets out and searches for Bin to pick up where they left off, she discovers her country has become an alien landscape.
This transition into the second fraction of the film’s trifurcated structure arrives suddenly, offering little room for reorientation for either the viewer or its characters. Qiao treks to the Three Gorges Dam, an industrial behemoth that flooded settlements, displacing millions, and that served as the setting of Jia’s 2006 film “Still Life” and has been completed in real life since that film’s release. It’s one of many returns Jia makes in the film to his previous work. That said, the film does not require its audience to be familiar with the filmmaker — in fact, its classicism and sense of humor make it one of his most accessible — but its reflections on China’s recent years become more poignant and personal when understood as part of a greater project.
Central to this retrospection is the anchor of Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and frequent collaborator, who has worked with him on almost all of his films since his global breakthrough “Platform” in 2000 (not uncoincidentally released around the same time as the beginning of “Ash”). As this is a travelogue through Jia’s thematic considerations, so too is it a reinterpretation of Zhao’s own body of work, which involves a multitude of roles featuring women who must discover how to endure in times of rapid modernization.
Her performance as Qiao is a tour-de-force, tracking this guarded yet shrewd figure over some 17 years. She is the only person who took the moral principles of the jiang-hu to heart, so, evidently, her resolve to maintain loyalty and forgiveness remain steadfast even after she discovers Bin’s own retreat from the culture. “Am I that important?” he asked her. She replied, “If not you, then what is?”
The film remains measured about its nostalgia though. The first act of “Ash,” when it fully embodies the texture of the gangster genre, doesn’t fantasize its criminal landscape. Despite her stature within the male-dominated gang, Qiao’s inability to help her impoverished father suggests the limitations of her authority within it. An essential distrust of China’s future under the rule of western capitalism emerges as these traditions of jiang-hu erode over the course of the film, but its longing for a historical morality is made ambiguous by an underlying acknowledgment that it was probably never there to begin with.
“Ash” doesn’t move through time as much as it metabolizes it — taking it in and having its setting rearranged. “Wherever there are people, there’ll be jiang-hu,” Bin assured Qiao early on in the film. The film finds that criminality endures, but only insofar as its ability to fit overarching economic systems. The underworld is gentrified, its fraternal milieu of swooning gangster films evaporated to make way for “respectable” corporate corruption. What first appears to be the fading of youthful idealism in Qiao and Bin becomes a last stand for chivalry in a country abandoning tradition. By ending in the present, the gut-punch conclusion of “Ash” takes on an urgency with its look toward the future. After this romance has been forced to metamorphose for years, love is found to be indispensable, but it still can’t stop the planet from spinning.
“Ash is Purest White” is currently playing at the California Theatre.