“Even when things feel a bit underwhelming or languid, it’s hard to not be at least somewhat compelled by the meticulousness of the journey.”
by Ken Bakely
A film like Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White almost washes over you as it goes along, allowing the totality of its scope to settle in. Then again, with its considerable scale, taking place over nearly two decades as it follows a character in knotty and complicated networks – crisscrossing through relationships, organized crime, and change on micro and macro levels – maybe calling it “sweeping” is somewhere between a given statement and an overly simplistic one. Jia has become fundamentally associated with this kind of material, and returns to it once again as he chronicles Qiao (Zhao Tao), who we meet in 2001 as the girlfriend of Bin (Liao Fan), a mob boss. From there, we move forward in loosely stitched together, abstractly marked episodes. Qiao ends up getting arrested, when attempting to intervene after Bin is attacked, and serves a five-year prison sentence; Bin, free as ever, all but disappears. Upon her release, she begins to look for him, and yet, even afterwards, the objective for Jia is not to present a single goal as the film’s focus, but to use the character’s predicaments as symbols of a larger whole: the bigger picture here is Chinese society in its contemporaneous evolution in the seventeen years of the story’s setting (ending in 2018), as changing and tentative in a chase towards an unknown future as Qiao often is.
The movie sprawls out along these lines, and doesn’t always connect with the blistering accuracy and deep emotional connections that something like Jia’s previous film, Mountains May Depart, achieved with such extraordinary skill. But the movie’s observational prowess serves it well in an overriding sense, and Zhao Tao anchors the film in a shattering lead performance, conveying the turbulence of the plot and her character with remarkable control and deep conviction. To maintain a presence so singular, yet complicated and opaque, through a film that covers such a wide breadth is a testament to truly phenomenal acting, and Zhao is always completely commanding from start to finish. Ash Is Purest White seems more successful with the individual dynamics of characters than the larger arcs of its plotting, but not for lack of trying, what with how Jia so clearly looks to effortlessly invoke rather enormous ideas about societal shifts and evolutions in single moments. In other words, there’s a certain disconnect between the magnitude of the movie’s reach and what it ends up grasping upon: scenes operate with incredible technical skill and great artistic merit, and yet, when put together, there’s little except the most overarching impressions of how this might all have ideally worked. And yet, this disconnect is never overly damaging or detrimental. The film takes its time and takes up a relaxed pace, which can cut both ways, but is almost reassuring at times, letting us take everything in. And even when things feel a bit underwhelming or languid, it’s hard to not be at least somewhat compelled by the meticulousness of the journey.
After all, with Eric Gautier’s gorgeous cinematography – from bright, wide exterior shots among vast hills and valleys, to vivid shots of nighttime city streets bathed in golden streetlamps and colorful neon signs – the movie is never anything less than visually diverse and sumptuous, to match its broad reach. As we watch Qiao navigate through the incredibly wide array of situations she encounters (handling them in ways which often range from messy to objectionable) we see how the film wants to reconcile and compare its disparate perspectives. Its multilayered gazes do match and meet each other, in the sense that nothing in any worldview is assigned a single, fixed classification – since nothing in this environment is ever permanently assigned. Ash Is Purest White is an experience most defined by that endeavor to look as far and wide as possible, as it seeks to keep both a handle on the intimate and meticulous character dynamics at the forefront, as well as the grander narratives and sociocultural developments and dilemmas they discreently comment upon. It’s a tall order, and Jia has done it better in the past, but this is hardly a reason to dismiss the accomplishments here out of hand. Through captivating scenes and strong performances, there’s still a lot to mull over here, and it’s still rather rewarding to engage with the material in depth.