A Jia Zhangke enthusiast might find this very much a recycling of past themes—not that it is any bad, but that greatness seems elusive as the film progresses.
Dir. Jia Zhangke
2018 | China | Drama | 137 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin
PG13 (passed clean) for some coarse language
Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Diao Yi’nan
Plot: A story of violent love within a time frame spanning from 2001 to 2017.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes); Nom. for Best Leading Actress (Golden Horse)
International Sales: MK2
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore International Film Festival ’18)
Every new Jia Zhangke film comes with great expectations. After all, he is arguably China’s finest filmmaker to have emerged at the beginning of the 21st century. His latest, Ash Is Purest White, sees him tackling contemporary China again, and like his previous (also poetically-titled) Mountains May Depart (2015), it spans across nearly two decades.
Zhao Tao plays the lover of a small-town clan boss, who tries to tap into China’s early economic boom by rubbing shoulders with important friends. However, he becomes the target of violent local agitators baying for blood. It is difficult to say anymore without letting on too much, particularly the denouement of the first chapter that leads to events of the next two chapters.
But what I can say is that Ash Is Purest White is not so much about the intricacies of narrative plotting, but rather that it comes from the tradition of storytelling characterised by a parallel temporal tension between the personal (Zhao Tao’s character’s circumstances) and the wider nation (China’s rapid capitalistic development). As the main character’s life trajectory continues on, we also feel and see the country changing.
Ash Is Purest White is certainly ambitious to a fault as it is not always compelling and the pacing can sometimes be draggy. There are, of course, scenes to savour, especially Jia’s use of wide landscape shots that captures the old towns, developing cities and the in-betweens. He employs the services of Olivier Assayas’ long-time cinematographer, Eric Gautier, whose natural and fluid camerawork helps Jia to tell a more intimate and fluent story.
Zhao’s performance is a standout and so is her opposite number, Liao Fan. While mostly a serious film, Jia allows some moments of humour to flourish, such as a sequence in a train where a stranger converses about his otherworldly work, or a scene where Zhao’s character tries to scam strangers for money. Her resoluteness and street-smart acumen give her the platform to survive her changed/changing environment.
If you are a casual fan of Jia’s works, you will enjoy this, but a skeptical enthusiast might find Ash Is Purest White very much a recycling of past themes—not that it is any bad, but that greatness seems elusive as the film progresses. I’ll be curious to see what he’s up to next—it might be time for him to do something radically different.