The director Jia Zhangke filmed some of the first shots of Ash Is Purest White in his home province of Shanxi, China, using the grainiest of digital video. The footage is nondescript—it just captures local folk on a bus—but it’s a pointed jolt of authenticity that helps set the stage for a decades-spanning drama of love and betrayal in a drastically changing country. Jia, whose stark, sometimes unflattering realism has led to repeated clashes with Chinese censors, possesses an unparalleled skill for creating a tangible sense of time and place to anchor his sweeping stories.
Ash Is Purest White is the ninth feature from Jia, and it bears many of the hallmarks of his past works. The film stars the director’s wife and muse, Zhao Tao, who has appeared in all but two of his movies, as a woman living through dramatic upheaval in Shanxi, a northwest province known for spectacular landscapes and a massive coal-mining industry. Like Jia’s 2006 masterpiece, Still Life, Ash Is Purest White spends a good chunk of its plot in the area of Hubei province that’s being irrevocably transformed by the building of the Three Gorges Dam. And like his last two films, A Touch of Sin and the staggering Mountains May Depart, the movie unfolds as a triptych, with three distinct chapters in varying tones.
At times, Ash Is Purest White feels a little like a greatest-hits recap for Jia, who emerged as a director in the late 1990s to become one of China’s foremost filmmakers. The plot of Ash Is Purest White is a little more recognizably mainstream than Jia’s other work; it’s the tale of a young woman whose love for a local gangster eventually lands her in jail, and her odyssey to reconnect with him after she gets out. But this mob-movie romance, told with Jia’s usual languid pacing and oblique morals, wanders in surprising new directions, both for Jia and for the tropes he’s taking on.
When Ash Is Purest White begins, Zhao Qiao (Zhao) is a big fish in a fairly small pond: the girlfriend of the local crime boss, Guo Bin (Liao Fan), in her hometown of Datong. Guo is every bit the local big shot, smoking endless cigarettes, resolving petty disputes, and meeting with shady businessmen—a routine interrupted by the occasional trip to the disco (Jia’s fondness for cheesy pop music, also a centerpiece of Mountains May Depart, is all over this movie). But young pretenders are beginning to nip at Guo’s heels. Soon enough, a public confrontation with her boyfriend’s rivals ends with Zhao being sent to prison for five years.
The Datong scenes are bravura stuff from Jia, who has always excelled at photographing the clamor and confusion of an industrial city. Yet the first third of Ash Is Purest White is fairly stationary, with Guo sitting atop his petty empire. What comes next is both quieter and more dynamic: an unhurried odyssey through mainland China, as Zhao leaves prison, journeys down the Yangtze River in search of a new life with Guo, and sees for the first time the ways in which her homeland has already shifted beyond recognition and will continue to do so. On boats, buses, and trains, Zhao meets people who are pursuing brighter futures in some form or another. Her own quest for answers and fulfillment, however, is never quite realized.
Ash Is Purest White is an immersive, 136-minute epic that somehow feels longer, even though it’s told entirely through Zhao’s often limited perspective as a tourist or an observer. Jia makes each new bustling or desolate locale that Zhao encounters an adventure in itself, while reaffirming that the trappings of her former life are unattainable. Eventually, Zhao does end up back in her home province, though it’s almost a foreign landscape, a city left in the dust by China’s rapid 21st-century innovation. The film deals with individual loss, growth, and revolution amid countrywide upheaval. Despite the grand scale, like all of Jia’s works, Ash Is Purest White leaves questions of good and evil to the viewer—this isn’t a philosophical story, but a personal one.