‘Ash Is Purest White’ review: Love and transitions

A still from ‘Ash is Purest White’.

A still from ‘Ash is Purest White’.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

An intimate story of romance, betrayal and loss gets framed against the sweeping, epic backdrop of radical, socio-economic changes in China.

Somewhere in the middle of the film, observing a dormant volcano from a distance, Jianghu crime syndicate gangster Bin (Fan Liao) and his girlfriend Qiao (Tao Zhao) talk about how the ash of the volcano is the purest; having burnt at that high a temperature, it gets refined. It becomes a metaphor for Qiao’s own journey in life — how intense travails, betrayals and losses burnish and strengthen her. An inner distillation of sorts to find herself.

Qiao, who is devoted to Bin, ends up serving a five-year-long sentence for his sake and comes back to realise that everyone, including Bin and China itself, have changed and moved on. The film then is like coming a full circle for Qiao who starts off as a typical gangster’s moll but eventually comes to rule the gangland herself as the mob boss. From always being his pretty arm candy, she turns into the support that a vulnerable Bin is left seeking as time passes by.

Ash is Purest White
  • Language: Chinese with English subtitles
  • Director: Jia Zhangke
  • Starring: Tao Zhao, Fan Liao
  • Storyline: Qiao, who is devoted to mob boss Bin, ends up serving a sentence for his sake and comes back to realise that everyone, including Bin and the nation itself, have changed and moved on.

In scene after scene, Jia Zhangke frames the petite and fragile Tao Zhao as a lone female presence in the mercurial male world of smoke-filled gambling dens, street violence and shooting guns. Zhangke offers an interesting feminist twist to what has essentially been considered a male genre. Even as men talk of brotherhood and loyalty in the gang, it’s Qiao who looms large.

The personal in Zhangke’s work can’t be seen independent of the nation’s history. Qiao’s intimate story of rebuilding her own life after a five year pause in the prison is set against a sweeping, epic backdrop of the radical, socio-economic changes inChina. The intimations of them were in the air when she was still out and some have happened during her confinement. There is the future of coal mines and its workers at stake in Datong with Qiao’s father symbolising an old order getting lost.

“We must fight the capitalists until the end,” says he on a microphone. But is anyone listening? The not-so-picturesque, modern landscape tells its own story of supposed progress and rough transitions — the ugly powerplants, the shiny train stations, the high rises, an under construction sports stadium. And, above all the Three Gorges dam submerging Fengjie, forcing people to be evacuated. The theme of migration and resettlement due to supposed reforms and development echoing loud for us here in India as well.

It’s essentially Qiao-Bin story but Zhangke creates some quirky characters along the way, bordering on the funny. The elegant, animal documentaries and ballroom dancing loving mobster, a sex-obsessed motorcyclist who gets conned by Qiao or the ardent UFO believer with whom she finds a moment of intimacy on a train ride. But it’s Fan "Bin" Liao, and more so Tao Zhao who owns Ash Is Purest White. Her Qiao is luminous and admirable in her pride and self respect. A compelling personification of changes and continuities.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 6:24:17 AM |

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