Film Review: Ash Is Purest White (2018), dir. Jia Zhangke
I am still not sure what to make of this enigmatic film by Chinese director, Jia Zhangke. What I do know is that it has been haunting me and lurking around in the back of my brain and making me continue to ponder. The work contains so many peculiar anomalies which seem to have no context. For example there is an inexplicably sappy Chinese love song which is played as background for a raucous celebratory bar scene where the denizens of a dive bar pour every kind of booze into a huge punchbowl and proceed to drink themselves into oblivion. There is also a frantic discotheque scene with strobe lights and the crowd jumping up and down to sounds of The Village People singing YMCA. Whaat? In what seems to be an irony-free mode, I can not postulate on what the filmmaker intends. Rather I will present what I found to be the salient elements and leave it up to everyone to make of it what they will.
It is a richly observed look at the individual lives of the two main characters, Bin (Fan Liao), a petty mob boss and his foxy girlfriend, Qiao (Zhao Tao). Their domain is the bleak post-industrial city of Datong in 2001 and their activities center around a seedy bar with a smoke-filled mahjong parlor populated by low-lifes who refer to each other as “brothers”. This jianghu milieu is the underworld of the Chinese triads which mirror the behaviors of gangs everywhere, the Mafia being the most familiar to American audiences. The hierarchy demands respect and loyalty and condones violence when necessary to maintain power and control. When another triad starts attacking Bin, it becomes clear that the situation is getting out of hand causing Qiao to fire off Bin’s gun to scare off his attackers and save his life. When she is arrested and sentenced to five years in prison it is because she refused to attribute the gun ownership to Bin, thereby saving him from prison. Meanwhile, Bin stands silently by and does nothing to save her. Nice guy. End of Act I.
Qiao endures prison stoically with few visitors apart from her sister. Her ailing father is too weak and sickly. And she hears nothing from Bin throughout her term. Leaving prison with no money and no contacts she sets off to find Bin, somehow imagining that he must still love her or at the very least feel gratitude for her sacrifice. When Bin’s betrayal and callousness can no longer be denied she forces him to confront her. She controls herself with steely resolve while Bin is revealed to be weak and pathetic. This has the effect of revitalizing her own personal empowerment and she exhibits some remarkably original survival strategies for life after Bin and gets on with it. The story meanders and seems to lose its way during her odyssey even as she finds her way back to (believe it or not) Datong where it all began. it is worth noting that the foxy Qiao from Act I is not the same after prison. She has adopted a very plain look, bereft of makeup and a conservative style of hair and clothing. End of Act II.
By the end of the film, 18 years have passed during which we have seen major events unfolding in China, including the flooding of the Three Gorges for the hydroelectric dam. Otherwise, there still seems to be an ominous atmosphere of something malevolent hovering over the country. The industrial emissions emanating from the ubiquitous factory smoke stacks augment the aura of menace. The mood is intense and serious and the unlikely trajectory that brings, first Qiao and later Bin, back to the dreary city of Datong which seems to have barely changed except for a few emblems of modernity like closed circuit cameras, newer cell phones and better clothes for Bin. Qiao now sports very stylish outfits, makeup and a chic hairstyle.
The major difference at this point is that now Qiao is the mob boss and Bin is a crippled and broken man who is totally dependent on her. Why does she take him back? She could easily and justifiably wreak revenge. Instead she takes him in and nurtures him back to health. She proves herself to be the only honorable and righteous person we have seen in this soulless milieu. Throughout her transitions she remains inscrutable, leaving us to wonder if her elevated sense of duty, righteousness and honor have been forged internally by what she has endured, making the case for the volcano metaphor of the title. The belief is that the most intense heat of the volcano cannot sustain itself, causing it to implode and then go cold, turning into ash. Or maybe the metaphor refers to the land or the population of China, a country that has undergone such seismic shifts that it has imploded leaving everything and everyone as cold as ash. There is definitely an air of weary resignation resonating throughout this deeply somber and melancholic film. I’m still pondering. It is your call.
You can watch a trailer for the film here