Connecting the disparate provinces of China is the Yangtze River, whose centrality in the nation’s development cannot be overstated. From Still Life (2008) to Mountains May Depart (2014), it has figured as a leitmotif in the films of Jia Zhang-ke, a director who has observed the deepening wrinkles in China’s modernization with a quizzical eye. Ash is Purest White falls short of his best thanks to a murky second half. Yet the sharpness of Jia’s partner and stock company player Tao Shao’s performance and a couple of limpidly subtle sequences save the picture.
Tao is Qiao, a widow stuck in a failing coal town twenty years ago with her grouch father and a gangster boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao), who does more posturing over cards and drinks than killing, although he does that too. Jia shows an authentic feel for small stakes grubbing; none of these people will upset the leadership in Beijing (which may encourage this parochial kleptocracy, for all I know) but anyone within Bin’s orbit endures his whims. When a power vacuum turns Bin into de facto boss, Qiao saves his life. She takes the rap and serves five years in prison. Released in 2006, she wanders through Fengjie, a landscape. to quote Yeats, that has changed, changed utterly. People ceaselessly thumb their cell phones. American products sold in gift shops. Even the Three Gorges Dam, star of Still Life, looks more imposing.
Expert at capturing formal occasions as the makeup starts to congeal and the men get sodden with liquor, Jia must have needed a gas mask to film those Bin scenes without succumbing to lung cancer. In Ash is Purest White, though, the camera doesn’t capture so much as linger. For a director with such an unerring sense of pace, these scenes threaten to turn into sympathy. But the films awakens when Qiao, too long disconnected from the rhythms of proletarian life, settles into a grifter’s life — for example, playing the sibling of a girl whom a local boss got pregnant to extort dough out of him.
This is the strongest part of Ash is Purest White: Tao as Jeanne Moreau in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, taking in the sights with increasing wonder and jadedness. Best is a reconciliation between her and a ravaged Bin set in a hotel room; the former couple submit to the gradations of resentment as Jia’s camera lingers just long enough on each actor’s face before moving at a snail’s pace to the next, a neutral advocate. Who’s right or wrong, he implies, no longer matters when the ashes of love need scattering.