The extraordinary Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s “Ash Is Purest White” spans 17 years. There is not a moment in its 136 minutes when one does not experience the moment-to-moment passage of time, its slow sweep and quiet epiphanies. This is not the sort of movie that offers up immediate gratifications, though there are some of those. Instead, it moves along with a steady grace. Its ruminative power creeps up on you.
The story is structured in three chapters (as was Jia’s 2015 movie “Mountains May Depart”). We are first introduced to Bin (Liao Fan), a small-time gangster, or jianghu, in the coal mining village of Shanxi. His girlfriend, Qiao, played by Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao, who has appeared in almost all of his nondocumentary movies, enjoys being a gangster’s moll. She loves jewelry and fancy clothes and thinks nothing of asking her chauffeur to drive for an hour to her favorite dumpling shop.
She also has an infirm father who rails against the coal company and lives in run-down public housing. Qiao acts very differently when she is around her father; her caring nature comes through, and we can see that there is more to this woman than we were first led to believe. Her dutiful connection to her father provides the key understanding to her character. She believes that loyalty, and the love that underlies it, is a sacred value. This comes into play when Bin is brutally set upon by a rival gang and she saves his life when she disperses the attackers by firing an illegal gun into the air. Because she was in possession of an illegal firearm, she receives a five-year prison sentence, which she could have avoided by telling prosecutors that the gun was Bin’s. Bin never visits her in prison and is a no-show when she is finally released. With an almost fated compulsion, she sets out along the Yangtze River, to a village at the foot of the Three Gorges Dam, to find him.
It’s not that she still loves him. In fact, at one point, when they are reunited, she tells him “I have no feelings for you, so I don’t hate you,” and she means it. What is at work here is something more expansive than being spurned. Although early on Qiao was quick to point out that she was not herself a jianghu, the irony is that it is she, and not Bin or his disloyal cohorts, who unwaveringly abides by a code of honor.
Jia’s movies, which also include “A Touch of Sin” and (my favorites) “Still Life” and “The World,” all express in varying degrees his abiding theme: China’s transition from traditionalism to the corruptions of freewheeling capitalism. He can be heavy-handed about this, and I’ve never quite understood why such a progressive artist should hold such nostalgia for a time when the Cultural Revolution was still in force. Thankfully, “Ash Is Purest White” is among the least didactic of Jia’s films. We recognize the subversion of rural China and its ancestral ways – that Three Gorges Dam will raze most of the surrounding villages – but the story is centered on Qiao’s personal quest and not on the vagaries of modern China.
Zhao is remarkable in a complex role that, by the end, reveals what she is fully capable of. Qiao’s seeming insubstantiality burns away. She suffers but without rancor. Her toughness has a plangency. We recognize that her pursuit of Bin, who has become a broken man, is a way of commemorating her own fierce sense of self. Her devotion transcends, and makes almost irrelevant, the object of her devotion. When she is with Bin, before the breakup, she looks out across the vast countryside to an extinct volcano and says “Volcanic ash is the purest shade of white,” and we know exactly what she means. The residue of a great passion is its brightest testimony. Grade: A- (This movie is not rated.)