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Ash Is Purest White is one of the best films of the year

The latest film from one of China’s most celebrated modern filmmaker is a triumphant, layered gangster film.

By Miles Jackson, Third Year, Film & English

The latest film from one of China’s most celebrated modern filmmaker is a triumphant, layered gangster film.

Jianghu is a Mandarin word which historically referred to the fantastical fighters and outlaws of the classical wuxia stories that dominate Chinese culture. Nowadays, the word signifies the criminal underworld and China’s modern mafia, the Triads.

There’s a conflict between the two contradictory connotations; the classical moral code of folkloric martial artists and the modern criminal enterprise of capitalistic mobsters. It’s this tension between China’s past and present that forms the beating heart of Ash Is Purest White, a grand, giddy and moving gangster melodrama from Jia Zhangke, perhaps 21st century China’s most prominent and vital filmmaker.

YouTube / Cohen Media Group

Beginning in 2001, the film follows Qiao (Zhao Tao), the girlfriend of small-time mobster Bin (Liao Fan) as their starry-eyed, gangland romance is snuffed out by a devastating attack by a rival gang. The consequences of the attack play out over the next 17 years, as Qiao and Bin’s paths criss and cross over the landscape and culture of a radically changing China.

Zhangke’s greatest strength as a filmmaker is his investment in geography, building a transportive sense of time and place that imagistically comments on the political makeup of China. The first act - much of which is shot in a boxy, Academy aspect ratio - provokes an inimitable sense of both intimacy and fluidity to the scrappy criminal underworld of Datong City. The camera moves fast and the texture of the images feels at once scuzzy and homespun.


IMDb / New Wave Films

Simply put, the opening to this film is a dream; the kind of dizzyingly euphoric headrush most filmmakers dream of creating. Though narratively the most conventional segment of the film - lovingly paying homage to the traditions of the gangster genre - formally it is a wild, woozy flood of emotion. A dance sequence set to ‘YMCA’ is hilarious, fraught with tension and bursting at the seams with beauty, all the while hinting with its choice of music at the country’s oncoming Westernisation.

Bin and Xiao are an endearing, intriguing pair: Bin the dutiful, responsible leader who becomes impulsive and selfish, Xiao his Lady Macbeth, gently pulling the strings. Zhao Tao - incidentally, Zhangke’s own wife - is a monumental lead, her expressive eyes invisibly moving her performance between the romantic ideals of youth to the cold, harsh realities of growing up in a world where one mistake can damn you to a lifetime of toil. Her performance buoys the audience through the film’s shifts in time; it doesn’t matter that the film never says exactly when we are and how far we’ve come, for we see it in Tao’s face.

‘In a few years, much of what you now see will be underwater’, a tannoy blares as Xiao enters the Three Gorges, a site where in 2006 a dam was built that raised the Yangtze river so as to submerge entire towns, requiring mass relocation. Xiao’s subsequent journey through a new-build cosmopolitan dystopia is where Zhangke's political ideas snap into focus, often just through details of the environment.

Where at the film’s opening we are surrounded by towering mountains, dotted with ancient temples and the isolated rock of an extinct volcano, the film’s middle segment features overbearing city blocks that match the height of the mountains in the background. People swarm the frame, and Zhangke’s film is wonderfully adept at subtly framing Qiao as separate from the masses, her role as a societal outsider made clear through elements like costuming and colour.

Qiao’s petty scams in this segment are thrilling to behold, and, though the pace slows as the film goes on, the ideas and plots are so fascinating and beguiling as to remain completely captivating. A supernatural occurrence that concludes the film’s second act is a spine-tingling moment of movie magic, a harbinger of the technological morass soon to consume our lives.


IMDb / New Wave Films

The film ends on a third act that slows the pace to a crawl, the once nimble, agile handheld camera movements becoming stiffer and sluggish, reflecting Xiao and Bin’s tired middle age. It’s a necessary shift, concluding the narrative on a melancholic, defeated note. Despite China’s enforced adaptation to a modern world - literally uprooting entire populations in an effort to acclimate - what happens to the people that are left behind?

The locales of the film’s opening, that once seemed so vivid, now appear dilapidated and tired. Zhangke frames large, empty spaces in long, mournful shadows. Xiao and Bin occupy a ghost town. It’s an unavoidably gloomy ending, though I do wish Zhangke had found more ways to invigorate and deepen Xiao and Bin’s relationship at this point, with Bin’s sudden arrival and even more sudden departure feeling a little too brief to serve as a truly fitting ending to his character arc.

Still, that Ash Is Purest White doesn’t end as strongly as it starts is hardly a damning critique. This is one of the best films we’ll see all year, a layered, soulful and fun film that balances pertinent politik with an exquisitely personal story. The film’s stylistic ingenuity, its wonderful quirks and sharp sense of humour make it an essential watch. In a year when the Chinese government is becoming ever more censorious (Zhang Yimou - the most successful Chinese filmmaker on the planet - recently had his latest film One Second (2019) pulled from release schedules in shady circumstances), let’s treasure films as miraculous as this while we still can.

Ash Is Purest White is showing at Watershed until Thursday 2 May.

Featured Image: IMDb / New Wave Films

Can you think of many better films to be released so far this year?

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