Film

All You Love and Hate Will Disappear: 'Ash Is Purest White'

Tao Zhao as Qiao in Ash Is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü) (2018) (IMDB)

In Jia Zhang-Ke's powerful love story, Ash Is Purest White, a woman and her gangster lover enact a dark dance of betrayal while modern China changes around them in explosively strange ways.

Ash is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)
Jia Zhang-Ke

Cohen Media

Mar 2019 (US)

Other


When Qiao (the everyday elegant Tao Zhao) sweeps into the grey and smoky mahjong parlor at the start of Jia Zhang-Ke's downbeat epic Ash Is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü) she's greeted by the thronged kibitzers and gamblers as both a being apart and yet just one of the guys. The only woman in sight, she carries with her an air of authority that comes in part from her taut, regal intensity as well as her romantic proximity to Bin (Fan Liao), clearly the boss of the room. Watching Qiao work the room like a dancer before settling at Bin's side puts you in mind of the social engineering pirouettes Sharon Stone performed for her grand entrance in Martin Scorsese's Casino (1995). She will be humbled in a similar manner.

While Jia is at home as Scorsese in the morally grey semi-criminal demimonde, that's about where the similarities end. While you could describe Ash Is Purest White as a kind of gangster story threaded with tragic romance, Jia is (as ever) after bigger targets here, with his characters seeming at times less like individuals and more flotsam being swept along the tide of history. They might take a stand here and there, or try to lash back at the hand fate has dealt them, but it's a losing battle, what with the massive grinding machine of industrial China being arrayed against them.

The movie's first segment is set in 2001, with the mood of plucky stoic striving established by some old documentary footage Jia shot years ago in the remote northern mining town of Datong. It's a place in new millennial tumult, with Qiao and Bin dancing in a glitzy disco to the Village People's "Y.M.C.A.", even while labor unrest threatens and her father drunkenly rails against the corrupt "capitalist paper tigers" at the mine.

Fan Lio as Bin (IMDB)

Although Bin appears part of the jianghu underworld and Qiao revels in the role of fierce moll, she also holds herself apart from it. She gently mocks Bin's pronouncements ("it's kill or be killed" or "it's all ours for the taking") as being straight out of the Hong Kong movies that mainland gangsters copied so much of their style and rhetoric from. The movie highlights this playacting in a society looking for new roles and traditions after the devastation of the Cultural Revolution: Qiao, Bin, and his fellow gangsters bang down shots and profess loyalty in a karaoke bar while the soundtrack from John Woo's 1989 film, The Killer, runs in the background. Later, Bin watches Taylor Wong's Tragic Hero (1987) with rapt attention. "It's not like the old days," Qiao admonishes.

Ash Is Purest White's first third concludes with a dramatic illustration of Qiao's sentiment. While Bin has been secure in his status, a rampaging pack of younger gangsters with no interest in any of the jianghu trappings and camaraderie are making themselves known. Jia's moody and circuitous style is then interrupted by a kinetic stunner of a street ambush that sees Bin battling a pack of motorcycle punks before being saved by Qiao brandishing the illegal pistol she had been trying to convince him to get rid of.

In its second third, the film follows a humbled Qiao, making her way through a strange new China after five years in prison. The quiet grandeur of her first impression has dissipated. This might be due to the disappearance of Bin, who got out many years before her but shows as much loyalty to her sacrifice as his now-scattered gangster brothers exhibited for him. Determined to find Bin, her one anchor to some kind of stable life, she searches for him in the bustling landscape. Floating down the Yangtze on a tourist boat, she hears the loudspeaker proclaiming the gloriousness of the massive Three Gorges development and cheerfully describing the "residential relocation" that will follow the flooding.

(IMDB)

Adrift, Qiao slides back to her old ways. She runs scams on frightened men, steals, and manipulates every social lever she can find to force Bin to reckon with their past and his debt to her. It gives nothing away to say that the results are less than she would desire, and that Bin's shallow code of ethics is not quite up to what is required to maintain morality in the brazenly thieving and amoral China that Jia depicts with such sociological exactitude.

The long passages of quietude are stabbed here and there with moments of violence or brazen surreality that highlight a certain unreality to the flux and change rippling through the country. Later scenes set in the present day show Datong as it currently is, not just ashy tenement towers but a gleaming high-speed train line and ranks of new apartment complexes, the eruptive modernity underscored by the eerie, wavering notes of the sci-fi-ish soundtrack. Meanwhile, Bin and Qiao circle each other and their old haunts, having never quite found their footing in the old world before being ripped away from it and now unsure of what to do in the new world.

The conclusion that Jia comes to for Ash Is Purest White is not particularly satisfying, though it rings true on a certain level of hard-boiled reality. Everything else in China may change, but in the end, there will always be mahjong.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.

Books

The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.

Music

Siren Songs' Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.

Music

Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.

Music

Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.

Books

Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.

Music

Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.

Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.