Ash Is Purest White: Known and Unknown, by David Bax
Ash Is Purest White, Jia Zhangke’s massively stunning, bittersweet new film, takes place over the course of roughly seventeen years, covering most of the twenty-first century so far. There’s a subtle running joke in which each chronological leap ahead is signified by more advanced phones. But that’s not the only mode of technological change Jia is tracking in his sprawling tale of lovers separated and rejoined. Ash Is Purest White also tracks the recent history of independent filmmaking; its opening scenes are shot on the same kind of muddy DV camera he used in his great 2002 film, Unknown Pleasures. And of course this film, like that one and like most of Jia’s work, is about China itself, incorporating the building of the Three Gorges Dam into the plot the same way Unknown Pleasures did with the rewarding of the Olympic games to Beijing. Finally, though, Ash Is Purest White is about a woman surviving in the midst of all of this, each of her life choices a reevaluation of her desires and values as a human being.
That woman is Qiao (Zhao Tao), beloved girlfriend of gangster Bin (Liao Fan). In order to save Bin from being beaten to death by rival gang members in the street one night, Qiao brandishes and fires a pistol. The illegal possession and discharge of a gun (plus her steadfast refusal to admit that she got the weapon from Bin) earn her a five year prison sentence. Once released, she sets out to track down Bin and find out how, or if, she still fits into his life.
Qiao and Bin’s life before the shooting is a happy one. They dance, laugh and do as they please even as Bin is conducting illicit business. But Jia and cinematographer Eric Gautier inject tension even in these salad days by maintaining a claustrophobic framing. In large groups, the camera is never able to hold more than two or three people in its gaze at a time. In conversations, it swings back and forth, evoking the constant paranoia of a mildly successful criminal like Bin, forced always to keep his head on a swivel in anticipation of encroaching danger but unable to look one way without taking his eye off of something else. The compositions open up as the film goes on, especially once Qiao is released from prison and becomes reacquainted with freedom. Eventually, we are treated to breathtaking shots of vast spaces that, along with the booming, percussive score and the elongated time frame, verge on qualifying Ash Is Purest White for the label of “epic.”
That scope doesn’t blot out or diminish Jia’s penchant for small moments of odd humor, though. Qiao’s constant grip on her water bottle—and her willingness to use it to reach out to other people in ways both tender and violent—is both moving and hilarious. And I guffawed when a crime boss announces, “There are only two things I care about: Animal documentaries and ballroom dancing.”
Touches of the surreal brings laughs as well, even as their metaphorical potency is crushing. Qiao’s first attempt to reconnect with Bin is briefly stymied when the automatic door of an office building fails to recognize her presence, shutting her frustratingly out by only an inch of glass. Ash Is Purest White’s depiction of loneliness is so perfectly observed and well-acted by Zhao that the bonds between viewer and character are increasingly fortified. My personal ability to identify with Qiao was as perfectly aligned as I’ve ever experienced.
So it’s impossible to blame her when her basic needs lead her to commit more crimes than she did in her previous life as a glamorous outlaw. But that was her past and it ended, just like most good times and most love affairs do. Heartache as profound as Qiao’s is so common as to be unremarkable until we’re reminded of its occasional appearances in our own lives. And yet the endings of things, as painful as they are, also create opportunity. The most soaring grace note comes when Qiao finds herself on a train, contemplating setting out for an unknown life in the rugged, sparsely inhabited province of Xinjiang, which literally means “new frontier.” Whether or not Qiao becomes this pioneer or not I’ll leave you to discover. But, whatever she chooses, Ash Is Purest White is awed by the ever-present potential to begin again.