Film reviews

The Front Runner | Ash is Purest White – VIFF 2018

Our coverage of VIFF 2018 continues with two very different pictures...

The Front Runner

When Gary Hart ran for president in 1988, he was the clear favourite. Three weeks later he disappeared from politics forever, and the world was stuck with the start of the Bush dynasty. What happened? Well, he dared the media to get a scoop on his alleged “womanising”. Naturally, the media had him on toast.

A tale of rapidly-moving rumours and the power of the press, director Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner is a witty, authentic-looking slice of late-80s political nostalgia (is that a thing to anyone not named Ronald or George H.W.?) that draws a strong performance from leading man Hugh Jackman, but doesn’t quite scale the real thematic depths of its subject matter. It also lacks the tension of its predecessors in the realm of political scandal and media expose, relying more on one liners and amusing expressions (which the likes of J.K. Simmons and Bill Burr deliver with aplomb).

The other issue is that it’s hard to identify or sympathize with Hart, who, truth be told, is a bit of a dick in his personal demeanor and endeavors, despite his agreeable big picture political outlook. With that sort of character in play, a more profound angle was needed from Reitman, especially with Jackman at his disposal.

Having said that, even half-decent political biopics are usually interesting windows into insane moments in time, and The Front Runner is just that; a look at a pivotal moment in the media’s ever-growing influence on politics, and a forerunner to the psychotic, privacy-free world we now inhabit.

Ash is Purest White

Alongside Zhang Yimou (Shadow), Jia Zhangke was the other legendary Chinese director at this year’s VIFF. His latest effort, Ash is Purest White, is one-part gangster epic, two parts melodramatic love story that, from the offset, both looks and sounds absolutely incredible on the big screen.

Starring Zhao Tao as Qian, the streetwise girlfriend of Liao Fan’s Datong mob boss, Bin, Jia takes us on a journey through a sliver of China’s smalltime underworld, encountering the deepest forms of love and loss on the root to salvation, all against the backdrop of rapid development that has come to define early 21st century China.

The quite beautiful first act establishes and develops both Qian and Bin’s relationship, and how it ties into the world around them. It is here the distinct aesthetic nature of Jia’s direction comes to the forefront, as does the picture’s frequently impactful, eerie, and gorgeously natural sound design. From there we jump forward several years on two separate occasions, following Qian’s bleak, energy-sapping, gradually less and less engaging passage to and from Bin; their destinies intertwined, whether they like it or not.

Though it dips from a narrative perspective after a superb opening, Ash is Purest White has the technical splendor and high-grade performances required to see Qian through her marathon journey.

Are you at VIFF? Let us know what films you’ve been enjoying!

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