By John Liu
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“Ash is Purest White” director Jia Zhangke is an internationally recognized film director and screenwriter from China. I started experiencing deja vu while watching the film. The similarities between Zhangke’s 2015 film, “Mountains May Depart,” are numerous — movie split into three time periods, the crazy third act, and the same lead actress, Zhao Tao. After watching the movie, I did a little research and discovered Zhao Tao is Jia Zhangke’s wife and has been in five of his films. While watching the film, you will notice one word that is translated into pinyin rather than English: “jianghu.”
This briefly translates into code of honor. I am lucky that my wife, Tracy, was with me to help interpret some of the scenes. The title, “Ash is Purest White,” is derived from our two leading actors chatting about a volcano. Their conversation will serve as a foreshadow for what lies ahead in their relationship.
The movie begins in 2001 as we follow Bin (Fan Liao), the leader of a gang, and his girlfriend, Qiao (Zhao Tao). They run a mahjong parlor together in Datong and abide by jianghu, which is demonstrated by swearing to a god and a drinking ritual.
The local coal-mining industry is disappearing quickly, and Qiao’s father has just lost his job.
One day, while dancing to the Village People’s YMCA at a nightclub, the gang’s boss asks Bin to help him solve some problems. The next day, the boss is murdered. It soon becomes apparent that a new group of thugs wants a piece of the pie.
While Bin and Qiao are traveling by car, they are suddenly surrounded by bikers. Bin is forced out of the car and beat up. Eventually, Qiao saves Bin by firing off a gun to scare off his attackers. Next, we see Qiao stuck in an interrogation room with the police trying to figure out who owns the gun. Qiao does not give up Bin’s name and claims the gun as her own. As a result, Qiao goes to prison for 5 years for an unregistered firearm.
In 2006, Qiao is finally released, but Bin is not there to greet her, so she decides to track him down to find out what happened in that time she was locked up. We notice the social and economic landscape is changing at a rapid pace, as the film focuses on the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River. Through a series of unfortunate events, Qiao loses all her valuable possessions, and we get to see a mischievous Qiao conjure up schemes to survive.
When Qiao finally finds Bin, she begins to learn the truth of why Bin has been so distant and discover which of them still believe in jianghu.
There is an extended amount of time where you see characters on screen stare at each other while they are contemplating what to say— sometimes, they say nothing at all. As you can imagine, the pacing is rather slow for the 2 hour and 20 minute movie. While watching, try to spot the small details that signify time has passed, like the evolution of cellphones. In case you forget, there will be distinct iPhone text tones throughout the movie to remind you. Like “Mountains May Depart,” the film gets very crazy in the third act, like a driving crescendo in a musical score then leaving the audience contemplating Jia Zhangke’s message at the end.
“Ash is Purest White” won the Asian Film Award for Best Screenplay. I recommend checking this movie out if you’re interested in a melodrama that changes direction multiple times with some thought provoking scenes.
This movie is playing in only one location in Seattle – the SIFF Uptown Cinemas. Thank you SIFF for bringing this movie to Seattle.
John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.