Though it’s tempting to call his latest film a return to form, Jia Zhangke’s output since his last critically acknowledged masterpiece, Still Life (2006), mainly shows an artist grappling with his place in his own world, meaning China. For the most part, Jia’s features operated on the edge of China’s cultural mainstream, hailed by international movie lovers and mostly tolerated by his compatriots who have more control over the industry he works in. The fact that they looked down on his socioeconomically critical stories was not necessarily expressed through action, though for years his countrymen could only see his films on bootlegged DVDs. That changed with A Touch of Sin (2013), a movie that maintained the critical stance but couched it in more populist terms, which the authorities could tolerate because the criticism seemed aimed at society in general rather than policy. Nobody was fooled, but it’s obvious the authorities wanted to claim Jia as their own given his international acclaim and, for that matter, his love for his country. For what it’s worth, Touch was a pretty great movie, but not for the reasons his previous films were great. Always a fan of old gangster films, Jia proved he could handle genre fare, but when he tried to apply this skill to his next movie, Mountains May Depart, with its dystopian plot, the results were confused and, probably due to the fact that he was partly working in a foreign language, thematically incomprehensible.
Ash Is Purest White isn’t half as good as Platform or Unknown Pleasures, but it uses that gimlet-eyed study of social Darwinism to background a genre film of extraordinary originality. Basically a romantic melodrama focusing on the 17-year relationship between the regional mob boss Bin Bin (Fan Liao) and his “moll,” the fiery Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), the movie charts the evolution of Chinese hinterland economics since the dawn of the millennium, and in that sense it’s a kind of sequel to Unknown Pleasures (there’s even an early scene that, reportedly, is an outtake from that movie). This couple adheres to a criminal code that is quickly being supplanted by outlaw capitalism, which is not the same thing, as embodied in a redevelopment project that is reshaping their community. The early scenes are reminiscent of Hong Kong actioners but with more self-regard and wit in the depiction of violence. Inevitably, Qiao Qiao takes the rap for her boyfriend in a gun crime and gets put away in prison for a number of years, true to her man and her code, but when she gets out she realizes that the code was always bunk and Bin Bin was never as strong as she figured. In fact, it takes her a while to track him down and on the way she proves her mettle as an independent agent, holding her own both physically (she does a number on another woman who dares cheat her out of some money) and mentally. If Bin Bin is half the man he was before the change, Qiao Qiao is twice the man, and a better measure of what it takes to survive in modern China.
In that regard, Zhao Tao comes into her own as one of the best actors of our time. She’s been Jia’s muse (and partner) since he started, and the slow accumulation of experience in the world and acting ideas has made her both fiercely instinctive and highly adaptable to type. Thanks to her, Ash is Purest White becomes more dramatically intriguing as it shows us what Chinese capitalism has wrought over the last decade and a half. She makes it all so personal.
In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
Ash Is Purest White home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Xstream Pictures (Beijing) – MK Productions – ARTE France