Directed by: Jia Zhangke
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Feng Xiaogang, Xu Zheng, Zhang Yibai
The idea that people have the ability to change forever remains a strongly debatable topic that has proponents on both sides. One side may argue that someone’s identity demonstrates who they are at their core and cannot change while the other might say that everyone changes as they mature and through their experiences. This film takes that question to heart and puts it at its center as it follows a tragic love story and how to pick up the pieces of life after tragedy strikes.
After years of being a mob boss in a small town, Bin (Liao Fan) and girlfriend Qiao (Zhao Tao) face the economic impact of coal not being a valuable source of income. The prices have plummeted and it serves as a major source of economic trade for them. Qiao wants to leave the town with Bin and start fresh somewhere else, which Bin refuses. Then a harrowing and violent incident occurs that lands Qiao in prison for five years and the world she steps out to after her sentence is not what she expected.
The wave of emotions that this film carries borders on sensational, from the action sequence in it to the very slow and dramatic emotional moments. Qiao serves as the protagonist of the story and the filmmaking allows the audience to experience everything as her experience. The film demonstrates it well in the one action sequence of extreme violence, where the movements are crisp and remain clear to the audience. That sequence puts the audience into the psyche of Qiao and when she makes the decision that lands her in prison, it feels understandable. It makes complete sense because the same emotion Qiao feels gets injected into the audience due to the filmmaking, which should be appreciated. The fight sequence, which stands alone has better choreography and stuntwork than most American action films. The clarity of the fighting and the physicality of the blows are incredible but this type of excellence remains commonplace in Asian cinema, thus not being too much of a surprise.
The world outside after Qiao’s prison sentence forces her to adapt, which truly tests her character and perseverance. Years living as the girlfriend of a mob boss has provided luxuries that she no longer had after prison and the ways that she survives, particularly as a woman, demonstrates her cunning ability. Her aptitude in surviving gets tested when she learns that the man she loved not only did not visit her in prison but also moved on completely from her. This leads to a series of conversations between Qiao and Bin that slows down the film but becomes essential to the story of both of these characters. These conversations dive into the thematic throughline of the entire film about whether or not someone can change. What ensues for the rest of the film captures a series of other meetings that give Qiao the chance to decide what she wants to be and live outside of her ideal structure set in her previous hometown.
Ash is Purest White tells a contemplative story and as mentioned before, really goes through the thought processes of Qiao as she determines her next steps. During these instances, the pacing gets even slower, which harms the film for me. It remains essential to the story, but it could have been displayed in a more refined way. It’s still a very good watch because of the character of Qiao and the decisions she has to make about her identity and the relationships he wants to keep. It also serves as a minor commentary about the pride of Chinese men when looking into the character of Bin and why he makes his decisions. A well-told story and Zhao Tao’s performance serves as the anchor keeping the film grounded even when there may be some missteps. A different look into Chinese culture and one that I definitely recommend others to explore.