The ninth non-documentary feature film from the acclaimed Jia Zhangke was super-anticipated by the Industry and Press already down here given the line to get in snaked back to some stairs 20 minutes before the screening even started. Zhangke is the kind of filmmaker whose name by this point carries an aura of reverent fervour by pretty much anybody who considers themselves a Serious Film Fan. I overheard several guys telling their colleagues that had turned up to watch this one film that at least they’d picked one by “the greatest filmmaker in the world,” another related an anecdote/theory that the Toronto International Film Festival’s Platform strand was named after Zhangke’s second film of the same name, and my East Asian Cinema module back in Film Studies dedicated several weeks to his oeuvre and how it represented the evolution of Chinese cinema. Anticipation, then, was high.
For those whom happily embrace the thrall of Jia Zhangke, Ash is Purest White will be another satisfactory slice of prime Zhangke. Ash is yet another elegiac mood piece that’s primarily a metaphor for the evolution/regression of China as a society, of the kind that Zhangke has effectively codified for the rest of acclaimed modern East Asian cinema. It stretches its legs (running as it does well over two hours), fixates on a pair of simple-to-describe but emotionally-complex characters, is gorgeously shot throughout, and is sometimes briefly interrupted by shocking bursts of violence that can hit you right in your stomach. Ash borrows Mountains May Depart’s clearly-defined three-act structure to tell the story of mob boss Bin (Liao Fan) and his lover Qiao (Zhao Tao), over the course of 17 years. Beginning in 2001, jumping ahead five years later after Qiao saves Bin from a public hit only to find that he’s moved on whilst she was in prison, and finally finishing with their contentious reuniting in 2017.
Zhangke gradually moves his latest work from a gangster film to a romance drama as the narrative rolls on, as the gangsters of the early days go legit or fail to escape the dead-end towns that eventually become gentrified and render their prospective criminal escapades obsolete. Tao and Fan are both excellent, but most especially Tao who exudes a magnetism in everything she does. Every line of dialogue she speaks, every move she makes, every action she takes revealing a woman with far more strength than she or anyone else is willing to let on, later curdling into a loss of self after five years away that never manages to heal no matter how hard she tries. Whilst Zhangke is, to me at least, still the best in his field at filming China, draping it in the arthouse realist style that defines a large amount of East Asian Cinema like this – all lengthy takes, stretched-out beats between dialogue, conversations delivered slowly and deliberately, often sparsely-populated – but still finding or injecting actual life into every frame so that proceedings don’t feel like a grubby sparsely-populated dollhouse. Real soul in each frame.
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…can I tell you a shameful secret, however? Jia Zhangke films have never managed to connect with me. I am always left cold by them, appreciating the formalism but never grabbed by the characters or the tones and wishing that they’d hurry the hell up already. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that they borderline bore me, which I know is the kind of statement that might get me strung up and quartered by other real members of the Film Press. But it’s how I felt when watching Pickpocket, when watching A Touch of Sin, when watching Mountains May Depart, and now when watching Ash as Purest White. After an opening 40 minutes that culminate in an arresting as hell visual, I found the film’s second part dragged on for what felt like an eternity, although the scene where Bin and Qiao finally reunite is truly brilliant, and then its final part starts out strong but blows past at least five perfect closing shots and loses all momentum when the true ending does arrive. I honestly got quite restless and sleepy throughout a good stretch of Ash, the film coming close repeatedly to losing me.
Fans of Zhangke are likely going to want to bump that score up a full star because this is just someone whose works I have never been able to connect with, and Ash is Purest White is nothing if not another Jia Zhangke film. But I can only grade films based on how I personally felt about them and, whilst there is some stuff I appreciated and properly liked, I just wasn’t into the movie. Sorry.