The exquisite Ash Is Purest White by Jia Zhang Ke, starring Tao Zhao in an extraordinary performance, follows the lives of its characters against the background of a rapidly transforming China.
Mother Chinaby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Ash Is Purest White hangs on Tao Zhao’s wonderful central performance in a portmanteau film wide-ranging in time and space. As Qiao, we see her first in 2001 as the pliant, girly girlfriend of the local gang (jianghu) boss Bin (Fan Liao). They’re the cool power couple in their depressed northern, coal-mining town, where he owns the disco. In fact, the film opens with exuberant dancing to Village People’s YMCA, reminiscent of the dancing to Petshop Boys’ Go West in writer/director Jia’s Mountains May Depart. But though Qiao is a de facto gangster’s moll, small signs convey that she is capable of being much more than this; she has a tough, though well concealed, moral centre. This part of the film is shot in an aspect ratio that looks like a nostalgic home movie.
Qiao bravely saves Bin’s life but by doing so receives a five-year prison sentence. On release in 2006, when the screen returns to full size, she sets out to find Bin again. She had expected he would be at the prison gates to meet her and she doesn’t know where he is now.
But while she’s been shut away from the world, everything outside has changed. China has been devastatingly undergoing an ultra-high-speed transformation. Whole cities have been destroyed and redeveloped, old, redundant industries like coal mining have shut down and nature is brutally threatened. As Qiao journeys towards her home town by boat through the spectacular Three Gorges, she is told she is seeing their natural beauty for the last time before they are flooded to create a new reservoir that will make thousands of people homeless as their homes disappear under water. And the people she knew before have changed too. Bin has become respectable, exchanging the criminal underworld for the Chamber of Commerce.
Qiao is an amazing heroine. She’s an emotionally resourceful, strong, indomitable woman. As she grows in stature over time, Bin crumbles. Years pass, opportunities are lost, fortunes fluctuate, yet somehow the two are fated to be in each other’s lives. As well as the recurring theme of guns and the local dead volcano (the source of the film’s title), express trains also recur as Qiao traverses vast distances across the country, discovering it, with a cosmic detour through a flying saucer region under a starry sky. Years pass until the film reaches the present, 2018. Qiao and Bin have aged in their different ways and their old stamping grounds, and the country of China itself, are unrecognisable from 17 years ago.
In many ways, Ash Is Purest White shares Jia’s previous preoccupations. Tao Zhao is a superb actress, his wife, muse and recurring star, and Mountains May Depart too has her as the central character responding to life in a changing China over a lengthy time span. But though Ash Is Purest White set to a large extent in the unfamiliar milieu of China’s gangster community, Qiao’s character is a very moving, human creation, defined against the vast canvas of the transformation of a country and the human beings caught up in its destiny. “We are all prisoners of the universe,” as one character comments. It’s compelling.