By Liam Lacey
Starting in 2001 and ending on New Year's Eve 2018, Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke's Ash Is Purest White represents a big slice of modern Chinese history and, in one woman's life, a span from youth to middle-age. This fat melodramatic novel of a movie (Gone with the Wind could be its title) follows the trajectory of Qiao (Zhao Tao, the director's wife and regular collaborator) who plays the consort to a small-time gangster in the industrial backwater town of Datong.
In the local cantina, where the local wise-guys gather in the back to gamble at mahjong, Qiao, in a denim jacket with fancy embroidery on the back, struts among the men, punching them affectionately. When she reaches her man Bin (Liao Fan) — mustachioed and cocky, like a latter-day Errol Flynn — she gives him a love bite on his shoulder before nestling beside him and taking a drag from his cigarette. In this town, Bin is the man. When a dispute breaks out between two of the other hustlers, he settles it promptly, reminding them of their underworld code of righteousness and honour, known as jianhu.
Trouble is on its way. Qiao's father, a poor miner, rails against political corruption and the bosses who are closing the mines. And a younger group of gangsters are in the streets. Bin gives Qiao a gun for protection against the backdrop of a dormant volcano, the source of the film's title (volcanic ash, says Bin, is the purest white because it is made with intense heat).
The couple's trial-by-fire comes soon. One night in town, their car is surrounded by angry punks who begin beating Bin. Qiao finally takes out the weapon, gets out of the car and fires into the air. The punks scatter but she ends up doing a five-year stretch in jail for possession of the weapon. The movie's second part starts with her release, now in 2006, when she goes looking to reunite. But Bin has moved to another province and doesn't answer her calls.
Like Jiang's last film, Mountains May Depart, Ash is structured as a triptych on modern Chinese history. He deliberately echoes two of his earlier films, both also featuring Zhao: 2002’s Unknown Pleasures, his fourth film and also set in industrial backwater of Datong; and Still Life (2006) set in Fengjie, a city about to be submerged by the Three Gorges dam project. Much of the film's middle section focuses on Qiao's resourcefulness after she has been robbed of her cash and identification. It offers a quick portrait of hypocrites, philanderers, and people on the make, who make deserving targets for her scams.
Eventually, Qiao and Bin reunite in a long scene in a hotel room that plays like a one-act play. She demands to know where they stand and he tries to find ways to say that things have changed. At one point, he sets paper on fire in a bowl and suggests they jump over it together, to rid themselves of their bad luck. But neither takes the leap. Their exchange is heartbreaking: "Am I that important?” he asks her. She responds: “If not you, what is?”
That sense of a belief system, even a criminal code, gives Qiao a sense of purpose that's almost like hope. On a train journey, she listens attentively when an eccentric man offers her a job for his company guiding tours of alleged UFO sites. Finally, he breaks down and admits he's only a convenience store owner. Later, she has a vision of a UFO, an improbable sign from the cosmos that she’s on the right path.
The final third of the film sees her return to Bin — in reduced circumstances from a stroke — in an altered city of bullet trains, high-rise canyons and a half-finished sports stadium. (“Where the hell are we,” Bin asks at one point, while Qiao checks her phone map). Qiao's power has grown but there is no triumph here, more a sense that she's a martyr to her code.
Ash Is Purest White — constantly dislocating and unpredictable moment by moment — feels all of its 135-minute running time but long after, the individual sequences hang in the memory. First, it's a showcase for an extraordinary actress, terrifically versatile within a focused range as the character ages and evolves. The film is also a vast fresco of modern China. It was shot by French cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries, On the Road), employing different types of digital video to give different textures to the different periods in the film, in scenes epic and intimate.
Atypical of Jia's work, there are a number of whimsical scenes of staged performances throughout: An acrobat balancing a bicycle on his chin, dancers performing The Village People's “YMCA,” a pair of ballroom dancers performing on the street after a funeral; street performers, a caged lion and tiger on display. These scenes put the narrative on pause, as we and the characters stop and gaze. They suggest those moments when we stand back and see our lives are performances, set against the vast theatrical scrim of history.
Ash Is Purest White. Directed and written by Jia Zhang-ke. Starring Zhao Tao and Liao Fan. Opens March 22 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.