One of the most commercial and straightforward films of his career, Jia Zhang-ke’s ASH IS PUREST WHITE is accessible but not superficial, entertaining but never meandering or pandering to the audience. A deceptively simple love story, this is a smart reflection on gender relationships as a metaphor for the changing face of China.
Qiao (Zhao Tao) and Bin (Liao Fan) are lovers. They hustle their way in the underground mob world in China in 2001 and everything seems to be working out perfectly for them. But a series of events put their love to the test when Qiao uses her gun defending from a group of younger and anonymous rising mobsters, only to be then sent to jail with a 5-year sentence. When she gets out, both China and her own life and relationship with Bin are forever changed.
On one level, ASH is a reflection on the emotions and conditions that love, an emotion itself, seems to create, foster and sometimes even kill. How do pride, forgiveness, selflessness, empathy, and dependence survive in the context of love? And how does time impact one’s feelings and desires? In the case of Qiao, her love for Bin is timeless, unstoppable, unconditional and even relentless. For Bin, love is more of a situational preference greatly impacted by time and context.
ASH explores how both partners perceive and deal with love, and that contrast remains the film’s beating heart. From 2001 to 2017, we see both lovers going through physical and emotional transformations and we experience the wrinkles of love as time passes by.
On another level, ASH is a social commentary on China itself. The 17-year span in which the story takes place saw a great deal of transformation and infrastructure changes in China, which brought about changes in the people themselves. But as time goes by, do values, once highly regarded, stay as intact and untouchable as they once were? Or do they also wither by time?
The film’s emotional core belongs to a magnificent Zhao Tao, a strong contender for the Cannes 2018 Best Actress Award. As Qiao, Zhao perfectly captures this complex character full of rage, emotion, and determination. The camera is fixated on her for the majority of the runtime, and we follow her story as she transitions from a lover to a prisoner and then back to a lover and a mobster.
Technical credits are, as expected, strong and notable, particularly the cinematography. But the film’s real charm comes from a smart screenplay and a fantastic Zhao that pulls us in and never lets go.
Verdict: A smart, complex and entertaining film with a wonderful central performance by Zhao Tao.