I had no idea what to expect when I sat down in the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center for the press and industry screening of Zhangke Jia’s latest film ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE. I went in with an endorsement from a trusted filmmaker friend and that was about it. I was genuinely surprised for the complex, heartbreaking adventure that was set out before me.
The film starts in a small, somewhat rundown casino in a small mining town in 2001. Qiao (Tao Zhao; Mountains May Depart) is the girlfriend of casino boss and smalltime crook Bin (Fan Liao; Black Coal, Thin Ice). They live a pretty opulent life, despite being in one of the poorer regions of China, with the mining industry that sustains their town about to be shut down. Qiao always has new cool outfits and there’s a lot of dancing, especially to the song YMCA.
Bin starts to become paranoid when a gang of teenagers kills one of his good friends and business associates, who just got out of jail and gave him a suitcase full of money and introduced him to his sister, in his own home. They attend his funeral, which has a stunning yet also hilarious ballroom dancing tribute. Soon after, Bin gets hit in the leg with a lead pipe by a group of teenage twins, who he sends off with a warning.
The following evening when Bin and Qiao are driving, a bevy of motorcycles surrounds their car and then stop in front. Bin gets out of the car and at first he is kicking ass and taking names in an awesome fight scene, but Bin is outnumbered and eventually the teenagers who must have been responsible for his friend’s death start pounding Bin’s head into the hood of his car. Qiao is in the backseat, staring in disbelief. For a second you’re sure he’s dead but then she exits the door with Bin’s newly obtained HIGHLY illegal gun. She fires two shots in the air to get everyone to leave.
In the next scene, we see Qiao behind bars, refusing to admit that the gun belonged to Bin. She is in jail for five years. When she gets out of jail, she discovered that her father has died. She’s desperately attempted to contact Bin, but he won’t answer his phone. Soon Qiao finds out, after having all her money stolen and then stealing money from poor unsuspecting men at a restaurant and a creepy chauffer’s motorcycle, that Bin now has his deceased friend’s sister as a girlfriend. He won’t tell her himself, however.
Qiao then decides to go back to her hometown and takes a long train ride where she meets a man who claims to be opening a UFO-tourism business near the Southern Chinese border. We think for a moment that the two might end up riding off in the sunset together, but the man admits to Qiao that he is merely an owner of a convenience store, she says she just got out of jail, and she leaves him at the next train stop while he is asleep.
From there, ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE keeps following Qiao and Bin into the future for 12 years. It’s a tumultuous experience, but Qiao never seems to let go of Bin, even though she definitely should have. Everyone’s been there, in a relationship where one partner definitely doesn’t deserve the other partner’s love because that partner is a reprehensible prick. However, love makes people crazy, and this film illustrates that insanity, along with the loneliness, anger and depression that accompany it.
The one thing I didn’t like about this film is that I felt like it was unnecessarily long. I understand that this might have been used to illustrate the ridiculous length of Qiao and Bin’s troubled relationship, but I don’t think we necessarily needed to feel those 17 years, but maybe Jia thinks we did. Overall, the film is beautifully shot, well written, and the actors are phenomenal. The film is also just a little off-kilter, which is one of the things I like about it. I definitely recommend it, especially to fans of Jia’s earlier works, which I will now have to check out.