Ash Is Purest White

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday March 15, 2019

'Ash Is Purest White'
'Ash Is Purest White'  

Director/writer Jia Zhangke has already made a few films detailing the many ways 21st-century China has changed since the beginning of the millennium. With "Ash Is Purest White," he rightfully keeps his focus on one woman as she gives herself to change. Even when the ripple effect of violence threatens to push her off that path of change, she stands steadfast in her unwillingness to sink into obscurity. This isn't a film filled with hoorah moments that are supposed to elicit the most primal of reactions. Instead, it focuses on the smaller and more confounding aspects of life to show that life will never be that cut and dried. It's not easily digestible, and we're a bit foolish for ever thinking so.

Earlier on in "Ash If Purest White," Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her low-level gangster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan) stand at a distance from a dormant volcano, and Qiao muses on the way the volcano's heat can purge a land and purify it. By stripping a location down to its essence, things can grow anew. The foundation is still the same, though, and the same can go for Qiao's travails. The film follows Qiao from 2001 to 2018 as she progresses and regresses. In her relationship with Bin, she's strong because of her ties to a dangerous man. When she makes a sacrifice for him in a climactic sequence that echoes the Wuxia brand of Chinese fiction, that confidence is washed away by consequence. She spends five years in jail for her actions while hoping that Bin is waiting for her on the other side. Of course, he isn't.

"Ash Is Purest White" is the perfect framework for the director's innate ability to showcase how one act of violence can be felt through many years. Even when that act of violence is looming in the shadows and waiting to pounce, it has the tendency to shape and form someone in ways that aren't true to who they actually are. Such is the case with Qiao, who may be Zhangke's most fascinating heroine to date. His newest film may be a tad more conventional than his previous efforts, but no less sprawling in the ways it depicts humans moving through an ever-changing world struggling to change as quickly as their environment does. And as is the Chinese director's wont, he finds ways for humor to creep in when you'd least expect it.

Zhao Tao's performance as Qiao further cements the actress as Jia's ingenue, simultaneously the perfect vessel for his ideas but also a collaborator in which I imagine helped the filmmaker to shape his newest story. Qiao is a woman drifting through the patriarchy initially with grit, then with reluctance and finally with a self-sufficiency that feels both heartbreaking and relieving. Jia has the ability to showcase years of loss and regret in a way that doesn't feel leaden or put into bold text. As Qiao forms relationships and tries to repair broken ones, you're given the sense that her life has always been dictated by men.

In "Ash Is Purest White," the relief from the bootheel of Chinese patriarchy is shown with subtlety and not bombast. Just like the volcano's power to purify, so can a person's power to accept reality do the same.