Similar to his previous film, the very good “Mountains May Depart,” the great Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s latest movie is a story about relationships that change over three time periods – in this case, 2001, 2006 and the present.
The picture incorporates some of the themes with which this director has long been interested – globalism (previously addressed in “The World”), a changing China (seen in “Platform” and “Unknown Pleasures”), the effect of the Three Gorges project on the Yangtze River (a focus of “Still Life”) and gangster stories (included in numerous Zhangke pictures, including “A Touch of Sin”).
As this story opens, a woman named Qiao (an excellent Tao Zhao) strolls through an underground mahjong parlor as if she owns the place. She doesn’t, but there’s a reason for her self confidence – we soon meet Bin (Fan Liao), her lover and a gangster who rules with a soft touch, rather than an iron fist. When we meet him, he is attempting to squash a beef between two mahjong players after a gun is drawn.
We learn that another member of the underworld who is a friend of Bin has been targeted by younger competition. He meets with Bin and the two watch bemusedly as a group of young people dance to the Village People’s “YMCA.” Several days later, Bin’s friend is stabbed to death by a group of young punks, and soon Bin himself is targeted.
While driving through town one night, Bin’s car is stopped by a group of youths riding motorcycles. They attack him, but before they are able to severely wound him, Qiao steps out of the car and fires a weapon into the air. Illegal guns carry heavy penalties in China, so Qiao takes the rap for Bin and spends five years in prison.
It’s 2006 when she gets out and finds herself traveling through the Three Gorges area. She hasn’t heard a word from Bin and attempts to seek him out. He has since moved on, has a new girlfriend and does everything he can to avoid Qiao.
Early in the picture, the couple discusses the virtues of the jianghu, which denotes a particular code of ethics for outlaws. In the five years since they last saw each other, Bin has attempted to move on from a life of crime, but Qiao still carries with her the tenets of the jianghu, most likely, because she misses the lifestyle. But a conversation between them in a hotel after she finally tracks him down proves that their differences are likely irreconcilable.
Qiao then finds herself alone on a train, where she meets another man who is interested in UFOs. For a moment, it appears that Qiao has, perhaps, found a man who can replace Bin. But at the first chance she gets, she sneaks off the train. Another 12 years pass.
The film’s final section – which similarly to the third portion of “Mountains May Depart” is the least potent, although the segment is critical to winding up the story, and does so in an effective manner – finds Qiao at the helm of her own mahjong game. She has apparently stuck to her code and is now in command. Bin shows back up, this time with a serious medical condition, and Qiao takes him in. There’s a very good scene in which he is sitting in the room with his old cronies, including the men whose squabble he once broke up, but it’s clear that he is no longer the top dog. The film finds the characters no closer to a resolution with one another than they were in the earlier chapters.
“Ash is Purest White” switches up visual tones to great effect throughout the course of its 140 minute running time. Zhangke’s stylistic choices here are compelling – he often uses breathtaking overhead shots of wide expanses and jarring smash cuts – one particularly effective one goes from a starry night to a high angle shot of a train moving across a desolate landscape. The film’s use of music and lighting is also effective, and there’s one scene of mystery in which Qiao spots something in the night sky that is unexplainable, but feels of a piece with the rest of the picture.
Zhangke is one of China’s finest filmmakers of the 21st century. Films such as “Platform,” “Unknown Pleasures,” “Mountains May Depart” and his latest tell the saga of an evolving nation, often at the expense of many of its denizens, but also stories about the effects of time and how relationships – much like a country – can have peaks and valleys. The director’s latest is one of his best and one of the must-see movies of the year so far.