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With: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Directed by: Jia Zhangke
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 141
Date: 03/15/2019

Ash Is Purest White (2019)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Ash' Mobs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jia Zhangke's ninth feature film Ash Is Purest White has drawn criticism from some corners for being something like a "greatest hits" collection of its maker's favorite themes. This criticism, of course, begs the question: why is that a bad thing? It's a testament to personal filmmaking that Jia has been able to look back over his work and create a kind of culmination of everything he has done so far. That he has been able to make it work as a totally, aesthetically satisfying movie, is admirable.

What's new is that it's his first jianghu movie, set in the world of gangsters, but without any kind of glamorizing — except for a quick clip of a Chow Yun-fat movie on a TV screen and a use of the great, beautiful theme song from John Woo's The Killer. Set over the space of 17 years, it begins in 2001 and concludes in 2018. Jia's usual leading lady Zhao Tao plays Zhao Qiao, the proud girlfriend of mobster Guo Bin (Liao Fan). Local rivalries spring up and are squelched in an everyday sort of way. But when Guo Bin is attacked by a gang, Zhao Qiao uses a gun to defend him and goes to prison for five years.

She gets out and hopes to return to business as usual, but everything is different. She cleverly uses her wiles to trick men out of money and rides, making a journey to perhaps find Guo Bin again, and possibly, also, herself. Jia has said that Zhao's character in Ash Is Purest White was informed by her characters in both Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Still Life (2006), something like "filling in the blanks." The epic scope and running time recall Jia's masterpiece Platform (2000), and references to the Three Gorges dam project on the Yangtze River likewise recall Still Life, as does a reference to UFOs.

As in all of Jia's films, music and performance, singing and dancing, are important, as is the presence of Zhao Tao herself. This film, as well as Jia's other films, are specifically commenting upon modern-day China, they do so in a way that is not necessarily critical. They are more like suggestions, reminders that returning to humanity is always a positive step. But even non-Chinese viewers can pick up on the movie's less tangible themes, from the concept of expressing one's emotions to the feeling of being alone, but perhaps not so alone, in the universe.

Influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni, Jia masterfully places his figures in wide landscapes, emphasizing their place within negative space. The film's quietest moments are among its most profound, such as when Zhao quietly silences her father's rabble-rousing over a town square loudspeaker, or Qiao discovering Guo Bin occupying a wheelchair, or the striking opening sequence — shot on video by Jia all the way back in 2001 — or even the UFO, which leaves a feeling of awe and joy. With Jia's films, there has always been the illusion of pessimism, and it's certainly there, but Ash Is Purest White is a masterful mix, sprinkled with measures of humor and hope.

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