Perhaps no filmmaker is as attuned to the passage of time as Jia Zhangke. In his latest film, Jia incorporated footage he shot around the turn of the millennium, as he did in his previous film, Mountains May Depart. However, this time round, he went to great expense and effort to recreate that bygone era. His protagonist, Zhao Qiao is also keenly aware of the changing times. The years gone by do not do her any favors in Jia’s Ash is Purest White, which opens this Friday in New York.
Guo Bin is a low level “Jianghu” gangster in provincial Datong, but he has ambitions. His lover Zhao sees herself as the Bonnie to his Clyde. For her, their relationship is not just about the money and benefits he can offer. Zhao genuinely loves him, so when Guo is nearly beaten to death in an ambush, she is willing to fire off an illegal handgun to save him—and then take the rap for the gun entirely on her own.
After serving a five-year prison sentence for him, Zhao expects to find Guo waiting at the prison gate, but he is nowhere to be found. Feeling rather disappointed, she follows his trail to the Three Gorges area. Zhao is not an idea. She fully recognizes what’s what. She just wants to make Guo cop to it in-person.
Although Jia is not trying to outdo Johnnie To by any stretch, Ash is still the closest he has (and probably ever will) come to a straight-up gangster movie. Honest-to-gosh, the big fight scene culminating with Zhao’s gunplay is a slamming beatdown that can compare to anything produced in Hong Kong or Hollywood over the last ten years.
Of course, it is still a Jia Zhangke film, so that means there is also a great deal of trenchant social observation. It also features another remarkably sensitive and complex performance from his wife and muse, Zhao Tao. She is definitely a woman scorned, but there is absolutely nothing cliched or rote about her performance as Zhao Qiao. We definitely feel her pain and frustration, even when she scares us a little (or maybe more than a little).
By a similar token, it is enormously compelling to watch Liao Fan’s portrayal of Guo Bin start with a confident swagger that slowly gives way to insecurity and selfishness. However, it is her scene with Xu Zheng (in an extended cameo as a traveling companion) that will really haunt viewers’ memories.
Ash is maybe a tad inconsistent, but it boasts some of the finest crafted scenes of any of Jia’s films. It also probably ranks as Zhao Tao’s best performance since A Touch of Sin, which is saying something. Throughout it all, Jia takes stock of the evolving cultural norms and literally changing landscape of 21st Century Mainland China. It is also nice to see the cut Cohen Media is releasing restored director-thespian Feng Xiaogang’s brief appearances as a doctor, even though he was axed from the Chinese release, solely because his name was bandied about in conjunction with the Fan Bingbing tax scandal, so international jet-setters should definitely see it here—and not in China. Highly recommended, Ash is Purest White, opens this Friday (3/15) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.