Jia Zhang-ke has become the most important mainland Chinese filmmaker since Zhang Yimou at his peak in the early 1990s. That reputation has been built on the strength of two great works of documentary realism: 2000’s Platform, which articulated China’s post-socialist transformation, and 2006’s Still Life, an activist film about the human toll of the Three Gorges Dam project. Jia broke from this aesthetic with 2013’s A Touch of Sin and 2015’s Mountains May Depart, and exposed his weaknesses as a narrative dramatist. But even those films retained the polemical and essayistic ambitions of a socio-culturally aware cinema, addressing, in the case of Mountains May Depart, the prospective concern that upward mobility in Chinese society was becoming the measure of a person’s willingness to Westernize.
That political dimension of Jia’s films has led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China.
Jia instantly establishes Ash Is Purest White as a film with a reflexive relationship to time—and to the chronology of his filmography—by beginning with digital video shot during the production of his 2001 film Unknown Pleasures, in the Shanxi city of Datong. One shot pans over bystanders’ faces on a bus, recalling the opening tracking shot of riverboat patrons in Still Life—and locates actress Zhao Tao among the non-actors. From the look of the bluntly cropped bangs of her wig, Zhao appears to be playing her character from Unknown Pleasures, the young dancer and model Qiao Qiao.
An abrupt change in aspect ratio brings Ash Is Purest White’s documentary-esque prologue to a close and kick-starts the narrative proper, which is also set in Datong in 2001. Qiao Qiao (Zhao, boasting the same blunt bangs from the earlier film) moves with confidence through a crowded club and enters a room where her suave boyfriend, Bin Bin (Fan Liao), holds court as a high-ranking member of China’s jianghu (loosely defined as a strain of the Chinese triad rooted in martial-arts tradition). When a dispute breaks out among two men, and a gun is drawn, Bin Bin uses diplomacy and calm reason to resolve things nonviolently, and Qiao Qiao watches him with admiration.
Ash Is Purest White proceeds as a romance between the steady and disciplined Bin Bin and the fiercely loyal Qiao Qiao, who alternately defend their place in the jianghu against encroaching challenges and dance ecstatically to the Village People’s “YMCA.” The couple’s criminal activities situate them on the margins of society, but their fealty to certain social relationships, and their professional conduct, suggests a code of honor, represented in a scene of Bin Bin and the other men of the jianghu community raptly watching Taylor Wong’s 1987 Hong Kong gangster movie Tragic Hero, and in the lilting Sally Yeh pop song from another ’80s action film, John Woo’s The Killer, that soundtracks two of Qiao Qiao’s pivotal scenes. As the two characters cling to their dissipating ideal of a gangster’s paradise, they also confront a redevelopment project, that’s set to change Datong’s social structure, and increasingly senseless attacks on Bin Bin’s life.
The lyrics of the recurrently featured Village People song, then, become a taunt: “Young man, there’s a place you can go.” The forces of nostalgic longing pull at Bin Bin and especially Qiao Qiao, who tries her best to ignore the mounting changes around her and hold onto an idea of things as they were. And Jia aestheticizes that nostalgia by imagining this early section of Ash Is Purest White as a gangster movie, and staging one intense street brawl that’s shot and edited like a sequence out of a Hong Kong action film. But the exaggerated violence here leads to the practical consequence of a prison sentence, which carries Ash Is Purest White to its audacious middle section.
While the first part of Ash Is Purest White plays as an extended reimagining of Unknown Pleasures, and returns to that film’s theme of a social disaffection brought on by China’s embrace of modernization, the second part—which takes place five years later, and follows Qiao Qiao in her efforts to locate Bin Bin in the Chongqing county of Fengjie—explicitly references Still Life, but in an ingenious manner. While this section of the new film is diegetically set in 2006, it was shot long afterward, when the massive Three Gorges Dam project that Still Life observed had been already completed—which means that the Fengjie frequently referred to by Qiao Qiao, and by droned radio warnings of an impending flooding, doesn’t exist in the same form anymore. And that dissonance becomes a means for Jia’s most moving and unique comment yet on the rapid spatial transformation of modern China.
In one tranquil scene from the 2001 section of Ash Is Purest White, Qiao Qiao and Bin Bin stroll through a grassy field and admire the sprawling landscape that surrounds them. Qiao Qiao looks off into the distance at a looming volcano and muses to Bin Bin, “Anything that burns at a high temperature is made pure.” This line, from which Jia’s film clearly takes inspiration for its English-language title, comes to represent the furious slash-and-burn iteration of progress that China is subjected to over the nearly 20 years that the narrative spans. But what tethers the anthropological ideas in Ash Is Purest White to a more direct sense of emotional engagement is Qiao Qiao’s stubborn belief in her relationship with Bin Bin as a way of proving that there can be a purity that outlasts the furnace of change in China.
The strength that Jia’s latest locates in constancy is furthered by the presence of Zhao, the filmmaker’s wife and longtime muse. Even as Jia’s films have evolved aesthetically, and grown in their thematic ambitions and temporal sprawl, Zhao’s exceptional performances have kept them anchored in a sense of emotional immediacy. In Ash Is Purest White, the actress revisits some of the roles she’s played throughout Jia’s filmography, and in the process renegotiates the distances between the feelings of youth and maturity that resonate within them. This is Zhao’s finest showcase to date—for the way she uses grace, intelligence, and humor with a dexterity that’s perfectly suited for the register of Jia’s aesthetically and thematically diverse film.