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Ash Is Purest White

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

Released 2018. Director: Jia Zhangke

CHANGE THE LOCATIONS AND REWRITE THE CULTURAL REFERENCES, and you could just imagine Hollywood making an American version of Ash is Purest White. This is a story about wielding power and then losing it. It’s about loyalty, betrayal, faithfulness and redemption. There are strong characters with their own moral principles and their story spans nearly two decades. Not forgetting a scope for violence. Indeed one could imagine a remake by Martin Scorsese or the Coen brothers.

The central character is a gangster’s moll named Qiao. In the coal-mining city of Datong, Qiao and her partner Bin enjoy the respect and control accorded to a power couple of the underworld. Their life of privilege and money collapses after Qiao is jailed for possession of illegal firearms when she used Bin’s gun to save him from being beaten to death in an attack.

Qiao believes saving her man and taking the fall for him is the right thing to do and she serves her time dutifully, waiting for Bin but he never visits. When Qiao is released after five years she looks for Bin, who has moved to another part of China, only to be turned away by her new replacement.

In a new city with nobody to turn to, Qiao is alone but not helpless. She’s quick thinking and resourceful, duping men at plush restaurants with made-up blackmail, scoring a free meal at a wedding, walloping a woman who steals from her, even outsmarting a would-be rapist and turning in a police report to flush out Bin from his hiding.

Ash is Purest White charts a woman’s journey from the perch of authority to the depths of dispossession and beyond. Zhao Tao is commanding in her presence as she takes her character through the peaks and valleys of her life story. A performance that exhibits a swaggering arrogance that quietly slides and wanes. Zhao’s expressive face and eyes a subtle mirror into the uncertainty and disappointment she conceals within, clutching a backpack like a shield. In a moment of submission to her fate, Qiao gives in to a stranger on the train who sells her far-fetched schemes of a UFO tourism business. Uncharacteristic of a woman tough as nails, but Zhao’s display of vulnerability convinces us of Qiao’s silent desperation and resolve. Even at her lowest, Qiao finds a way to move ahead to reclaim her life.

Jia Zhangke directs with a dispassionate eye. There’s a chilly air of cold efficiency to the way his images flow. Like his characters, events move under Jia’s hands without sentimentality. It’s a steely depiction of survivalist practicality. You fall, you get up and you get going. This is not only true of the main characters but also in Jia’s passing commentary on the state of industrialisation, and the damming of the Three Gorges that displaces an untold number of people, dragging their goats and chickens as they are forced to migrate to higher grounds.

The juxtaposition of these brief scenes with the display of wealth is a jarring image of a changing China, even within the same geographical confines. How’s this for incongruity, a couple in glittery costumes performing an earnest ballroom dance, so unexpected, out of place, culturally alien yet not entirely out of context.

Similarly, Qiao and Bin are characters who thrive outside mainstream society. In the outlaw underworld where they function at their fullest, they are governed by its own codes of ethics. In some parallel fantasy world of Chinese martial arts, they would be a pair of sword-wielding lovers locked in a deadly balletic duel questioning their loyalty.

Anchoring a movie about power and control on a female lead is not the norm in this genre. What makes it more significant is the gun belongs to a man but a woman fires the shot.

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