Director: Jia Zhang-ke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang, Feng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan
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Throughout his career, writer-director Jia Zhang-ke (Mountains May Depart, A Touch of Sin) has used the development of 21st century China as the ever-present background to his films, as a story that both informs and runs concurrent to the main narrative. The same is true of his latest film, Ash is Purest White, an epic gangster romance / tragedy that spans almost two decades.
Opening in 2001, the film stars Zhang-ke’s wife and muse Zhao Tao as Qiao, the girlfriend of Bin (Liao Fan), a small-time gangster who runs a mahjong parlour in the small northern town of Datong. When Bin is viciously attacked by a local gang, Qiao fires a gun in the air to protect him and receives a five-year prison sentence for possession of an illegal weapon.
When Qiao gets out of jail, Bin has disappeared, so she doggedly embarks on a journey down the Yangtze river to find him. When she does so, their reunion brings only disappointment, but the pair continually find themselves drawn to each other over the next 15 years.
Zhao Tao is terrific as Qiao, making an impression right from her opening scene, where she walks through the patrons of the mahjong parlour, playfully thumping some of them on the back before sitting down next to Bin and trying to bite him. Throughout the film, Tao’s seemingly passive face is utterly riveting, as she continually absorbs life’s hardships, yet always finds the strength to keep going.
To that end, the middle section of the film (set around 2006) is hugely engaging, as Qiao embarks on a series of scams to make money after her purse is stolen – the highlight involves her infiltrating a wedding party, sidling up to likely-looking philanderers and pretending to be the sister of their pregnant mistresses.
Liao Fan is equally good as Bin, although he has considerably less to do. At any rate, their relationship is consistently fascinating – Bin is clearly unworthy of Qiao, yet she sticks by him, even at his lowest point, guided by a sense of righteousness that’s tied in with the underworld (or jianghu).
Jiang-ke’s direction is stunning throughout, creating a number of strikingly memorable moments and images. Highlights include: an encounter with a sleazy motorbike taxi driver; a bizarre scene where Qiao apparently sees a UFO; the shockingly violent gang attack scene; a touching scene where Qiao visits her father at a soon-to-be-closed mine; and a pair of bookended scenes that explain the film’s title.
In addition, the film is beautifully shot by French cinematographer Eric Gautier, who makes the most of China’s changing landscape (at one point, Qiao passes through a village that will soon be underwater as a result of a nearby dam) and cleverly uses different film and video stocks to denote the changing time periods. This is a beautifully shot and superbly acted romance-slash-tragedy that moves at its own, deliberate pace and exerts a powerful grip.