There’s a moment in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind in which a critic accuses John Huston’s veteran director Jake Hanaford of borrowing from other filmmakers. “It’s alright to borrow from one another, what we must never do is borrow from ourselves,” is his sage-like response. I’m not sure I agree with Hanaford, as filmmakers often mature by returning to themes and ideas they explored earlier in their career, developing them with newfound experience. After all, if a carpenter makes the same chair every day for a year, chances are the last chair he fashions will be be more finely crafted than the first.
With Ash Is Purest White, Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke might be accused of borrowing from himself. His latest film continues his theme of using his characters to critique China’s embracing of capitalism and the narcissistic society he sees rapidly emerging from the ashes of communism. As with 2015’s Mountains May Depart, his previous film, Ash Is Purest White stars Zhangke’s wife and artistic collaborator Zhao Tao in a drama that spans the period from the dawn of the 21st century to the present.
Opening in 2001 - a confused era when we were all using cellphones while still listening to music on cassette tapes and watching our movies on VHS - Zhangke’s film finds Tao’s heroine, Zhao Qiao, enjoying the fruits of life as the girlfriend of gangster Bin (Liao Fan), who is rising through the ranks of a mob in a coal-mining town (a recurring setting in Zhangke’s work).
In an echo of a scene in Mountains May Depart where Tao danced to the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of the Village People’s ‘Go West’, here we see her strut her stuff on a crowded dance floor to ‘YMCA’. When a drunken Bin’s pistol falls out of his belt onto the dance floor, we immediately get a subtle but effective summation of the relationship between Zhao and Bin as the former quickly takes charge of the situation. Zhao is Bin’s lover, but also his mother, bodyguard and general manager.
Ash Is Purest White is most intriguing in these early scenes, as Zhangke nails the crassness of the gangster lifestyle in a way rarely seen in movies. When Bin gathers his crew to enjoy an assortment of fine liquors, gathered from “the five lakes and four seas,” Zhao empties the various bottles into one bowl, making a presumably foul cocktail which the assorted hoods knock back in a show of machismo. Tellingly, Zhao is the one left standing when the effects of the brew kick in. At the funeral of Bin’s boss, a scantily clad ballroom dancer performs a borderline erotic routine to pounding dance music. Money can’t buy class and all that.
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When Bin is attacked by a gang of young rivals, Zhao intervenes by firing a pistol into the air, and the image of a no-nonsense woman taking charge in such a dangerous and self-sacrificial way - her pistol smoking in her arm, an expression of tigerish dominance on her face - is one of the most striking I’ve seen in recent cinema. Zhangke choreographs the attack in an intensely realistic manner, subverting the Chinese martial arts movie trope of hoodlums taking it in turns to attack their prey by having Bin succumb to a flurry of blows from fists, feet and crowbars. This may be a character drama, but it features what might be the best action sequence you’ll see in 2019.
As a result of her intervention, Zhao is sent to prison for five years, emerging to a China that has vastly changed in a relatively small time. Hoping to resume her relationship with Bin, Zhao returns to her town, where crumbling hovels have been replaced by high-rise business complexes. To scrape some money together, Zhao employs a rather ingenious blackmail scam, approaching random businessmen and pretending to be the sister of their lover, who has suffered a miscarriage. Zhangke paints a grim picture of Chinese masculinity, with nary a single positive male character in his film.
As with Zhangke’s previous film, Ash Is Purest White is utterly captivating for at least two thirds of its running time, thanks in no small part to the magnetic presence of Zhao. But as with Mountains May Depart, it peters out with a whimper in a final stretch that fails to replicate the insight and energy that have gone before. Ash Is Purest White takes its title from an idea evoked by Zhao, that when something burns at a high intensity the resulting ashes have an unmatched purity. I was left hoping that unlike his recent frustrating work, Zhangke’s next film can maintain its high intensity spark through to its closing credits.
Ash Is Purest White - 3½ stars out of 5
Directed by:Zhangke Jia; Starring: Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi’nan Diao, Xiaogang Feng, Casper Liang