Ash Is Purest White

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/29/19 10:26:16

"Pure cinema."
5 stars (Awesome)

Someone in my screening of "Ash Is Purest White" was repeating "oh my gawwwwwd" through the end credits and beyond, and while it was probably from the exact note the filmmaker opted to end on, it's not entirely unreasonable to presume that he was just that taken with the film as a whole. It is kind of terrific, the sort of prestige import that may wind up surprising people with just how playful it can sometimes be.

It opens in 2001, with So Qiao (Zhao Tao) working in a mah-jongg hall in Datong City. She's dated manager Bin Luo (Liao Fan) for three years or so and they're doing well enough to support her father in the mining town where she grew up, and maybe the villas Bin's boss is building are a sign that Datong is ready to expand. Or maybe not; the "jianghu underworld" that Bin describes himself as part of doesn't seem to be the most organized of organized crime scenes. Even the bloody violence is often sloppy and apparently misdirected, landing the pair in prison. When Qiao is released five years later, she goes to Chaozhou to find Bin, who has already been out for some time.

The story that filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke tells is intimate; even the supporting characters who send things bouncing off in another direction don't seem particularly important, and other people in Qiao's life pop up and disappear without being given actual names. There are no children or business entanglements to force this pair's relationship down a certain path or create external pressure, and that allows Jia to make this a sort of pure examination of what this relationship means to these people. They can walk away, and if there's some transformative moment in their love's origins, the audience doesn't see it. Even the moments of great personal sacrifice are made without a whole lot of fuss - Qiao makes a decision she know will likely put her in jail because she wants to do it for Bin, and makes other decisions later because she values him, not because she has no other choice.

Despite this all happening over a span of years and a long-ish running time, Ash doesn't exactly become an epic. It feels grand because despite there being plenty of moments where it could run down or just sort of functionally get from point A to point B, there's not really a single bit of it that is not, in some way, well above average. It's full of shots that make you want to sit back and look for a while, but with plenty of intent in the sometimes small motions happening up front. It establishes early on that Qiao is the smart, observant one of the central pair, but with little things that don't show up her lover, and reinforces certain aspects of their relationship with things like how he slouches in every way possible while she does not. There are detours of a few minutes that could easily be dropped but which almost always give the film a bit of melancholy whimsy, or are in some ways revealing.

They add a bit to the heft of the film as well. Ash spans almost 17 years with a fascinating specificity - it makes sure one knows the exact dates that the story begins and ends, emphasizing one can measure what Qiao and Bin have given to each other - and finds an elegant satisfying way to come full circle while also making the point that "full circle" is nice structure but isn't necessarily worth that much. It makes all the little ways the film slightly detours from such a path even more interesting in retrospect, and they were always able to pique curiosity before. They work with excellent transitions to make this somewhat long, predictable path easy and engrossing, and a score that goes from restrained to playfully melodramatic without batting an eye..

Oh, and we had better be talking about Zhao Tao when awards time comes eight or ten months from now. She is genuinely amazing, especially since the hair/makeup/costume crew don't go out of their way to emphasize Qiao aging. She and Jia let the character's experience dictate her body language and allow her feel like her own woman despite her great weakness of a love for a man that doesn't always deserve her. Liao Fan, as mentioned, is a great complement to her as Bin, not overplaying his better qualities in the early going but capturing how a man can have less depth without being a paper-thin prop.

They do this well enough to get that stunned reaction at the end, although I'd be remiss to note that one reaction and not the occasional fidgeting and walk-out. It' not for everyone, especially those inclined to be disappointed upon getting a simmering romance after being drawn in by the image of a gangster teaching his girl to shoot. It winds up simmering with the best of them, and doesn't need to boil over to be a delight.

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