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With Ash is Purest White, the always surprising, habitually envelope-pushing film-maker Jia Zhang-ke gives us a complex romantic tragedy from China’s aspirational gangster-classes. And there’s an eerie futurist sheen: a miasma of visionary strangeness that gives a distinct glow to the social-realist grit.
As so often with this director, the turn of the century is the key moment — when China began to embrace capitalism, competition, rapid expansion and the Westernised status symbols like smartphones. In the year 2001, we see people dancing to the Village People’s YMCA at a party. As with the rousing rendition of the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West in his previous film, Mountains May Depart, it is a presentiment of that brave new world to come.
Qiao, played by the director’s partner and longtime repertory player Tao Shao, is a young woman who lives in a depressed coal-mining town where the pit is about to be closed. Her angry widowed dad is always railing at the official corruption and cronyism that has contributed to the industry’s decline. But she herself is hardly beyond criticism. Qiao is the girlfriend of Bin (Fan Liao), a tough and good-looking young jianghu, or gangster who hangs out all day at the local club playing Mah-Jong and drinking. Occasionally, he takes meetings at a nightclub with his own boss, a crooked property developer with a bizarre obsession with ballroom dancing — he actually brings two favoured ballroom dancers to the club with him and insists the pop music is turned off and replaced with something more congenial to the cha-cha-cha display that his two protégés will now put on for the baffled but obedient crowd.
When this boss is murdered in a turf war — occasioning a gloriously surreal display of ballroom dancing at his funeral — it promotes Bin to a de facto leadership level for which he is not ready, and exposes him to attacks. There is a great martial-arts scene scene when opposing wiseguys drag Bin out of his car on a crowded street and he tries taking them all on. But just as they are about to beat him to death, Qiao takes a fateful decision. She produces the handgun that Bin had confiscated from one of his quarrelling consiglieri at the club and fires it in the air. The terrified thugs run, Qiao and Bin are both arrested and the devoted Qiao takes the rap for her boyfriend; she claims the gun belonged to her. When her Dostoevskian five-year prison sentence ends (much longer than his) she finds that life and the Chinese economy and all her old mobbed-up pals have moved on to legitimate businesses well away from her depressed hometown. And Bin himself has gone and found himself a new girlfriend. All her romantic idealism had been for nothing.
So in a spirit of revenge, she sets out to track him down — but also, more ambiguously, and desperately, to track herself down, to track down what possible future now remains for her at the bottom of the social heap in this new go-getting society. The film shows that she becomes a figure of resourcefulness, ingenuity and cunning, hanging out at a restaurant and tricking likely-looking rich male diners out of their money simply by sidling up to them and saying: “I’m her sister — she’s had a miscarriage.” There are more than enough guilty philanderers for the ploy to work at least once. And her own experience with toxic masculine disloyalty has given her a nose for playing this kind of con.
But there’s more to it than just revenge. Qiao has already taken a boat trip to the Three Gorges Dam (the subject of Jia Zhang-ke’s Golden-Lion-winning 2008 film Still Life) and pondered the fact that this is about to obliterate most of the buildings on the landscape. Later has a deeply weird epiphanic experience: a kind of sci-fi transcendence. A talkative chancer on a train tries chatting her up with a ridiculous line about offering her a job in the research unit he runs for investigating UFO sightings. Qiao claims that she has had just such a vision; each knows the other is lying. But there is a kind of passionate or compassionate spark between them, at least here is some romance, some escape, some direction in this fantasy. And then Qiao genuinely does appear to have a cosmic revelation which is to guide her, obscurely, back to Bin, allowing her to bring him home to the shabby little no-horse town they started out in. It’s where they once gazed at an extinct volcano on the skyline and Qiao pondered something she once read — that volcanic ash is the brightest shade of white, because something that burns at such a high temperature has to be pure.
And have Bin and Qiao been burned and tempered and purified by life’s fire? Not quite. They seem to be an ashy, mucky grey. Their life together in this final act has a kind of tragic melancholy. Hard-drinking, hard-living Bin is now a stroke survivor using a wheelchair — a greatly reduced figure, like a malevolent version of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, but quite without the redemptive experience of love. Qiao herself is older, almost an old woman, but strong, self-reliant, almost a jianghu gang boss on her own account and unburdened by illusions and desires. What does the ending of Ash Is Purest White mean — and what does its middle or beginning mean? I’m not sure. It feels like a gripping parable for the vanity of human wishes, and another impassioned portrait of national malaise.
Source: The Guardian
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