An official selection at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it was in competition for the Palme D’Or that went to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s masterpiece, “Shoplifters” (placed 3rd in my top 10 last year), yet the 9th feature film from Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke (A Touch of Sin, The World) is every bit as great, and frankly it is his greatest accomplishment to date. A film that is a masterful study on Jia’s previous themes that include the transition and passage of time about China and its cultural transitions.
As in all of Jia’s films, the film is a brilliant commentary on modern-day China, how the country suffers from authoritarianism and control, and how the Chinese government restrictions lead to underground societies, black markets, and ultimately greater suffering in the end. The use of singing, dancing, and music are a brilliant motif throughout the film that shows a return to humanity. A masterful study of the agony of love, and the result of isolation and being left alone.
Jia Zhang-ke has become a monumental filmmaking name in China, perhaps the most substantial filmmaker in his homeland since Zhang Yimou (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern). Like any great auteur, Zhang-ke balances his style from documentary realism to stylized formalism from film to film, and even within the same film. Take for instance you look at his film like 2000’s Platform which studied China’s transition from an authorization Communistic to a more authoritarian corporatist society was shot in a more realism aesthetic with handheld camera’s and natural lighting. It was in his 2004 “The World” where his aesthetic became more stylized and formal. While his films are part polemical with grandiose scope and vision, and if anything the film is an exquisite and quixotic statement on the spatial time lapses of time, culture, relationships, and even livelihoods.
By instantly establishing the film with its themes, we encounter Qiao (Zhao Tao) walking in a crowded bar where she enters a room of a poker game where her boyfriend, Bin Bin (Fan Liao), holds high ranking of China’s underground crime ring known as jjanghu. Once a disagreeemnt occurs, Bin Bin uses rationality and reason to calm down the dispute and confrontation.
The film continues to capture the romance between the disciplined Bin Bin and the loyal Qiao Qioa, who are constantly having to defend their place and spot in the jianghu that holds a certain conduct and code of honor that lead to attacks on Bin Bin’s life.
Very much in the vein of Michelangelo Antonioni, and even Ingmar Bergman, Jia beautiful utilizes the landscapes of China and uses a lot of wide space to place to emphasize on his characters emotional dislocation. Like Bergman Jia explores the agony and cyles of a relationship and its complications. The first half of “Ash Is Purest White” unfolds and plays out like a crime gangster movie in the tradition of 80’s John Woo, and there is a beautifully staged street brawl that is cut and staged like a Woo film. The stylized violence leads to the arrest of Qiao after saving his Bin’s life with a unregistered gun, in which she is left heartbroken after he abandons her once she is released from prison 5 years later.
The film is filled with many great moments, whether its the main character Qiao disrupting her fathers protest on his town square speaker, or Qiao trying to make a phone call on a boat, and the striking opening scenes involving Qiao observing people dance to where she walks into a poker game, and even the scene of Qiao reuniting with her lost love Bin in a scuzzy hotel are impressive. Out of all Jia’s films, this one brought the greatest hope and less cynicism that we are used to from Jia. This is one masterfully made film that is a triumphant study of a wounded relationship attempting to heal.