Jia Zhangke is foremost a storyteller obsessed with ripples. His most recent three films have all coordinated their themes of violence and desperation through a series of interconnected vignettes, often carefully elaborating how a number of minute split second decisions can drastically alter ones pathways throughout the ensuing decades. Much like his previous effort, Mountains May Depart, Ash is Purest White features Zhao Tao at the centre of a narrative that spans the incidentally devastating life of a young woman from the turn of the century to the uneasy crossroads between present and future.
While Mountains gave us a glimpse at what a potential 2025 could look like, wisely sidestepping any major predictions beyond a more international emphasis to focus on tangible emotional pay-offs, Ash is Purest White chronicles the fading grip of a community of jianghu, or criminals, on a small, impoverished mining town.
Tao features as Qiao, the strong-willed girlfriend of the one of the group’s respected leaders, Bin. Continuing a common throughline for Zhangke, the coal mining town over which they exert power is in rapid decline, with the brewing poverty forcing other criminal factions to emerge and vie for the top position. This isn’t your glamorous, Scorsese-lensed insight into mob culture. The jianghu exhibit the same familiar machismo in their posturing threats and bets, but do so huddled around a cramped table wrapped in layers, with barely enough room to light a cigarette.
When a hit is taken out against Bin’s benefactor, Qiao is convinced running away from their precarious life is the best option, but he refuses. A team of motorcyclists overtake his car one night in a brutal ambush, forcing Qiao to take action with a concealed handgun. Though the weapon doesn’t belong to her, Qiao consequently spends five years in prison for possession of an illegal firearm.
While John Wick Chapter 3 is likely to dethrone it in the next month, the sequence in which Bin nobly defends himself against a group of assailants currently has the crown for the most viscerally composed action beat of the year. Balancing brutal choreography with a teetering grapple of power structures and shifting advantages, in a rare display of martial arts proficiency Zhangke stages a potential coup that sinks seamlessly from victorious undermining to bloody tragedy.
As with the director’s previous films, however, Ash is Purest White doesn’t over-exert the significance of the impact. Zhangke is far less concerned with the blood spurting from a broken nose than he is with how the conflict is resolved, and what comes of those who decide to engage. Qiao’s shots don’t hit anyone, but slice through the air louder than any violence in the film and stay ringing in her ears even as her jail time comes to an end.
I find the concept of filmmakers’ muses tiresome much of the time, as the term invariably implies a beautiful actress a director enjoys undressing on camera until she turns 35 and replaced for someone else. But Zhao Tao pointedly transcends this, the piercing centre who beats back against the relentless, rolling years with withering consistency. She’s been at the heart of Zhangke’s films for the best part of a decade, and it will be something close to a tragedy if he eventually makes a film without her.
Combining sensationally subtle makeup with an increasingly rigid and stoic performance from Tao, Qiao grows from a naïve party girl leaping and flinging her hands to ‘YMCA’ to a shrewd opportunist trying to make sense of a world outside of a prison cell. There are crucially surreal moments of levity as she ages more than twenty years into a middle aged opportunist. Village People fans will be pleased to know Zhangke’s passion for the band continues, as Ash is Purest White does for ‘YMCA’ what his previous film did for their song ‘Go West’. After interrupting the tune near its conclusion for an impromptu ballroom performance, the club setting rewinds for a reprise. The ballroom couple, donned in leotards and sequins, make a reappearance for an inappropriate demo at the aforementioned benefactor’s funeral.
Those used to conventional storytelling are apt to be a little disarmed by the moments of off-kilter whimsy, but they’re essential in building up to sublime turns of surrealism as Qiao grows increasingly disillusioned with the future that had been stripped away from her. Despite Mountains speculating on an actual foretelling of the future, Zhangke’s vision of 2018 actually feels far more unattainably distant. Qiao drifts through a world inhabited by smartphones and crackpots, managing like the rest of us, but still resenting those lost five years.
It’s a reality that’s heightened by Zhangke’s poignant sense of surreal temporality. I had found the director’s previous films just a little impenetrable, perhaps thanks to the inevitable issue that comes with anthology or pseudo-anthologized films. Once I felt I had come to grips to the character dynamics and thematic threads of one section, 45 minutes had already passed and a smash cut would bring me hurtling into unfamiliar territory some ten years or so from where we just left our steadily endearing cast.
Zhao Tao steadfastly remains the soulful nucleus of the director’s latest effort, however, and is smartly positioned center frame for the majority of its run time. Now the temporal dissonance that arrives from Zhangke’s familiar three tiered structure feels grounded and deliberate. His awareness of lost time, with 45 minute sections passing fleetingly as seconds turn to barely remembered years, is frustratingly, infuriatingly familiar. Qiao’s five years of confinement may as well be those lost days preparing for a job we’d never get, weeks spending time with someone who’d eventually mistreat us, months recovering from trauma, depression, or inadequacy.
The more reflection I invest in Zhangke’s latest exploration of forgotten years, the more I find it a feat of pure wizardry. Combining modern iPhone glossiness with serene, spiritual landscape photography, UFO hunting, street scamming and bizarrely inappropriate imagery all coalesce into a sweetly disconcerting elegy to lost time. Less of a gateway to the director’s filmography but by no means inaccessible, bypass the formidable run time and you’ll find that, much like life, you’ll breath in what feels like a fraction and years will pass like instants.