Renowned director Jia Zhangke’s newest outing, “Ash Is Purest White,” plays with and extends his oldest instinct: winding around the lives of a few individuals who have experienced China’s last century of transformation and upheaval. This time around, the movie anchors around a gangster couple.
The mob boss Bin (Liao Fan) is a rising star of the Datong underworld, a mining city whose seedy elements thrive despite the precipitous drop in the price of coal.
Bin’s girlfriend Qiao (Zhao Tao) keeps an affectionate orbit, and the two are unconsciously convinced that their love will last forever.
But after an abrupt attack on Bin by a handful of resentful bikers, Bin is hospitalized and Qiao, who brandished Bin’s weapons to drive the delinquents away, is imprisoned for a sentence of five years.
Her true punishment begins afterwards, when she is released into a new world where her old flame, without explanation, avoids her attempts to reconnect, all until the 2018 New Year.
Throughout this ambitious story are elaborate scams for cab fare, simpler thieves, a nobody convenience store owner who brags about opening a tourist agency for unsubstantiated UFO sightings across the southern border of China and a UFO sighting across the southern border of China.
But all the humor inherent in these interjections are deflated by the unrelenting despair that underlies “Ash Is Purest White,” a film that takes its name from Qiao and Bin’s conversation about an inactive volcano in the horizon prior to the biker attack.
It is a scene that decorates much of the film’s promotional material, where Bin offhandedly muses about an eruption that could overtake their city, then, supposedly unrelatedly, describes how the ash of such eruptions gleam the purest white. Bin so casually provides a wonderful title and a fallible metaphor for the entire film, one that somewhat predicts the string of happenings to come, but also remains wrong on two rich points.
Firstly, the disaster that burns it all down is less an eruption of the common imagination than the kind far more common to volcanoes: leakage of heat, fire and emotion left heretofore suppressed.
When Qiao leaves prison and Bin his hospital, their “brothers” and “juniors” in the “family” have all but moved on to greater and lesser occupations, united only in the fact that they are momentarily occupied and regretfully cannot come to her help, but please do leave a message at the beep for future queries.
Bin, betrayed himself, is the greatest traitor, overcome by his newfound lowliness and loneliness. He refuses to be pitied by the one person he had successfully pinned down as his girlfriend, future wife and lesser.
So he rebuffs all her attempts at reconnection, adamantly pursuing the course of solitude on his own terms, even as his body deteriorates at the pace of modernization.
Secondly, the disaster does not, in fact, result in the gleam of the “purest white.” There is no compensation to suffering in the film, and its absence stands as a fascinating counterpoint to the logic of capitalism, now more than ever looming over China in the new millennium.
As people scurry to their desired ends by any means necessary, Qiao chases her man and their times even as the incentive slowly disappears. There is an innocence to the parts of “Ash Is Purest White” following the biker attack, an innocence that invariably contains within it a willful ignorance of the brute facts of change and transition.
What awaits that ignorance is in turn the multiple sad eventualities that reside in the final parts of the film, but as said previously, the film is uninterested in eruptions.
The melancholy disconnects from the characters, the depressing realizations that Qiao and Bin are by choice or fate estranged from happiness — these occur without much fanfare. Like time itself, Qiao just keeps going, and like memory, the feelings are ours to place.
One may rightfully desire some sort of eruption though, as the film seems to go on and on, repeating the same points about these lovers dislocated in spacetime. Director Jia’s filmography is not one so accessible to flourishes of emotion, and here, that trait persists.
It is not so much that there is secret emotion stuffed under and aside; it is just that the characters involved are too busy, too desperate to let any of it wash over them: the usual volcanic tension of the world persists, if the metaphor is to be stretched.
One could flat out find no understanding to be had with Qiao for instance. She is tired and she is aging, and she runs after some ingrate: without work from the audience, it is a baffling characterization that could even feel regressive and some may feel more comfortable or just more entertained with the film taking an active stance, at least a vocal one.
For others, it may be a refreshing turn to be forced in this manner to participate in the fabric of the film, to not be told, by devouring corporations and hungry independents, of the significations and significance of their art, or even more obnoxiously, their art in such times.
One could read condescension in the trend, and here with Chinese gangsters, one could find respite and equity. The art and the times maintain a tantalizing, adversarial distance in “Ash Is the Purest White,” as we pay active attention to the things on the constant run in the world caught shedding, to catch the number of construction sites, the length of train tracks, the slow, steady withering of its passengers.
That is the experience afforded after the difficult dive, a journey with lonely people, finding an investigative intimacy across the aisle and past the screen that, once imagined to be taken and gone, convinces us completely that Qiao, weary and aging, should maybe run a little faster, try a little harder.