Chinese director Jia Zhangke is a familiar names for cinephiles. His previous film, Mountains May Depart (2015) divided critics however. He is back with Ash Is Purest White, the tale of a doomed love spanning decades.
The Chinese director is able to depict contemporary China like no other, in great details and offering a less than flattering portrayal in the process. He is particularly interested in the way the country has changed so dramatically over the last two decades. In Mountains May Depart he was looking into the future, here he turns back to to the turn of the century, a pivotal moment in which China embraced capitalism and saw its economy grow exponentially.
Youthful innocence is another of his favourite themes and it is very much in evidence in the first part of the film, in which Qiao (Zhao Tao), living in a rather depressing, industrial part of the country is having an affair with a mobster Bin (Fan Liao) at a time where China seems to offer some opportunities to everybody, even to people like them. Yet a fateful night sealed her future and sees her unfairly spend five years in prison for having defended her lover.
Upon her release, everything has changed: the country, Bin... and as the years and decades go by, the hopes of a better future slowly vanish, the promises offered by the country do not seem to materialise...
Zhao Tao is Jia Zhangke's wife and muse and he has offered her one great role after another. Here they have both truly outdone themselves, with a fantastic script entered around Qiao, which is probably Zhao Tao's best performance to date. She is a fighter and a survivor more by necessity than choice, showing some unexpected resources (she manages to scam a hapless wealthy man at his wedding, using her own experience of men's deviousness to her own advantage), especially in the outstanding second part in which she goes on a mission of revenge (she soon learns Bin who spent less time in prison has already replaced her) but one of self-discovery and purpose too. The question is, what do you do when everything has either fallen apart and moved on around you?
As time goes by even faster, the third act is one of melancholy and regret, in which nothing in both Qiao's and Bin's lives have quite turned out the way they expected, in which the burning white ash of they youth has long been extinguished.
Ash Is Purest White is an outstanding portrayal of a woman and the affecting story of small dreams and smaller lives, of the passage of time and the melancholy of growing old.
Review by Laurent de Alberti
Star rating: ★★★★★
Ash Is Purest White. China/France/Japan 2018. Directed by Jia Zhangke. Starring Zhao Tao, Fan Liao...