October 3, 2023

By Diana Cheng
AAP film and arts writer

“Ash is Purest White” is acclaimed director Jia Zhangke’s latest feature, a China and France co-production. It is like a fusion of Jia’s previous “A Touch of Sin” (2013) and “Mountains May Depart” (2015). The film is structured in three parts, packed with conflicts of loyalty and betrayal, love and loss. The changing physical and technological landscapes in China are the realistic backdrop of a story wrapped in the contradictions of choice and fate.

For non-Chinese language viewers, the English title could well be a mystery. What exactly is its meaning, and what kind of genre is it? The film has an answer as the phrase is explicitly mentioned: Anything that burns at a high temperature is made pure, thus, volcanic ashes are purest white, an apt metaphor as the story unfolds. The Chinese title, however, is less philosophical. 江湖兒女 (“Jiang hu er nü”) literally means “jianghu’s sons and daughters.”

“Jianghu”, that undefinable term with no direct English translation, gives it away as it refers to the ancient wuxia world or the gangster realm in present day. In an early scene when the two main characters, mobster big brother Bin (Liao Fan) and his girlfriend Qiao (Zhao Tao) are out in the natural landscape with a volcano in the backdrop, Bin says he belongs in the jianghu underworld: “For people like us, it’s always kill or be killed.” Qiao quickly responds, “I’m not part of the jianghu. You’ve watched too many gangster movies.” Bin in turn takes out his gun, wraps Qiao’s hands to hold it up, cocks and fires. “See now you’re in the jianghu,” he said.

That is a pivotal scene as it foreshadows things to come. Qiao is pushed into jianghu as she later fires the gun to ward off a group of hooligans in order to save Bin. What more, to protect him, she admits to the police that the gun belongs to her. With that, she spends five years in prison.

Jia has created in Qiao a reluctant heroine, capturing our attention with her loyalty and courage, two elements that are essential in jianghu.

“Ash is Purest White” is a mixed bag of crime thriller, melodrama, acerbic realism and humour; the story is an engaging vehicle taking us on Qiao’s personal journey. With this his latest film, Jia won Best Director at the Chicago International Film Festival and Zhao, his wife and muse, Best Actress. Most recently, he added one more accolade as he garnered Best Screenplay at the 13th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong on March 16.

A story told in three acts, the feature is a dramatic depiction of Qiao’s change as she is swept through the currents of life, first as a young woman following Bin around as his girlfriend, a relationship that he is reluctant to confirm. Then comes the pivotal scene of fate sending her to the second act, incarcerated. Later when released, she becomes more street-smart––being cheated, she learns to cheat––all for finding Bin, to pick up where they have left off.

The last part is 18 years from the beginning, Qiao has established herself in Bin’s previous hood, but Bin is no longer the feared and respected big brother. Fate has led him onto a path towards oblivion. The final scene leaves us with a poignant realization, certain things do not change even with the passing of time.

The music must be noted, particularly in the first act. As the opening credits roll, we hear Sally Yeh sing the melancholy theme song in the John Woo directed movie “The Killer” (1989, Chow Yun-fat, Sally Yeh). For viewers who are familiar with Hong Kong crime thrillers back in the days with Chow as the charismatic gangster hero, the song delivers an unexpected punch of affective nostalgia. It reprises several times later in Jia’s movie. The song lyrics describe a lonely heart yearning for love and acceptance.

Other theme music from Hong Kong movies are also heard in that first act, Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon a Time in China” (1991) and the familiar score of Chow’s breakout TV series “The Bund” (1983), all surprising selections.

Other than a set-up for what is to come in the story, I take it as Jia’s homage to Hong Kong’s action genre and their renown directors Woo and Tsui.

The film nevertheless carries Jia’s signature realism. To balance the fast changing landscape of the country, there are slower, reflective moments; from the billowing Yangtze to the expanding cosmos, Jia packs a lot for his viewers to mull upon.

“Ash is Purest White” is currently playing in selective cities and opens Friday, March 29 at Landmark’s Edina Cinema in Twin Cities.

Contact Diana Cheng at [email protected] or visit at Twitter @Arti_Ripples or her blog Ripple Effects rippleeffects.reviews.