Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White is a sprawling tale of love, ego and societal change. Spanning over 17 years, the story follows Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan) as their once solid relationship becomes as unstable as the declining economy in Qiao’s home town.
Commencing in 2001 in the Shanxi province of North China, the film paints a portrait of a community marred in civil unrest when the local mine goes under financially. The only thing that seems to be thriving is the jiang hu criminal underworld where Bin serves as second in command. Though Qiao does not agree with certain aspects of Bin’s life, take for example the gun he illegally carries, she enjoys the perks and clout that come with the organization’s mahjong parlours and shady real estate ventures.
The fleeting nature of this lifestyle becomes apparent when Bin’s boss is murdered leaving him in charge. As expected in a world where “honour” is a word frequently thrown around but rarely adhered to, Bin quickly becomes a target for rival gangs hoping to take his organization’s throne. This leads to one particularly violent encounter, one of most visceral fight sequences to hit the screen in a while, where Qiao has no other option but to intervene in order to save Bin’s life.
While the incident lands them in jail, Qiao’s sentence is significantly harsher as she refuses to admit that it was Bin’s gun that she had used. After spending five years in prison, without a single visit from the love of her life, Qiao is released into a world that has drastically changed. A world where former criminal associates have prospered going legit and Bin has moved on to a new relationship.
It is in the second half of the film, where Qiao embarks on a journey to reunite with Bin, that Ash Is Purest White is most in enthralling. What starts off as a traditional gangster film evolves into something else entirely. Using his camera to subtly emphasize how small the characters are in comparison to the vast and shifting landscapes they navigate, Jia weaves a complicated tale of two individuals that seem, for better or worse, bounded together by an invisible cosmic bond.
When a passenger on a train mentions how “we’re all prisoners of the universe” it comes across as existential jargon to the those around him. However, the words take on far greater significances in Jia’s hands. In many ways both Qiao and Bin are prisoners unable to break the chains that confine them. For Qiao it is the notion of love, and the cold sense of duty that eventually replaces it, which continually draws her to Bin, despite every indication that she should walk away.
In contrast, much like the wealthy men Qiao encounters on her journey, Bin’s fragile male ego is what cause him to repeatedly stumble. Bin sees his entire existence as one big status symbol. Like an aging athlete clinging to past glories, he is constantly seeking to repeat the adoration he once demanded. Failing to realize that reclaiming such power is a rare as the UFO that speeds across the sky in one scene.
As the economic and environmental climate moves faster than those dancing to Village People songs at local clubs, the only constant in their universe is that Qiao and Bin are destined to continue the depressing merry-go-round together whether they like it or not. A fact that makes the final twenty minutes rather bothersome for those who already see the ending coming like a beacon in the night.
Ash Is Purest White’s final moments may not be as invigorating or nuanced as everything that came before it, but there is more than enough to love and admire here. Jia crafts an entrancing look at how the cycles we often find ourselves in are just part of the universe’s design.
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