A film spanning 17 years, Ash Is Purest White is the latest from husband and wife duo, director Jia Zhangke and actress Zhao Tao.
The narrative centres on Qiao (played by Tao) and the criminal underworld she is sucked into because of love. Her boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan) is a powerful gangster with many enemies, but when they are arrested for being in possession of an illegal firearm, Qiao takes the heat and spends the next five years in prison.
The first half of the film perfectly sets up a compelling gangster drama, but for the rest of the runtime, that genre completely disappears, and as a result, it struggles to figure out what kind of film it wants to be. The narrative later becomes a character study of Qiao with a romance drama that drives her story forward.
Ash Is Purest White is Qiao’s tale, and Tao plays her both stoically and with vulnerability. She is a woman struggling to adapt to a changing China. When she is released from prison, she is welcomed by a country she no longer recognizes and seeks out people who have forgotten about her. And in order to find Bin again, she becomes the kind of underworld criminal she never intended or wanted to be. This is where the film is at its strongest—when you can see a country in transition through the eyes of the characters. But for most of the film, it feels like nothing really happens. The characters are quite thin to begin with, and though we see them change over nearly two decades, the film’s narrative feels very surface level when their story could have been explored to a much deeper degree. But the film provides the viewer with a satisfactory ending that ties back to the film’s strong first half.
The images of the sprawling, beautiful Chinese landscape isn’t the only tapestry the film weaves. It looks at time and what it does to people and countries, and explains why certain bonds last a lifetime. But it also makes us realize how small we are in a world constantly in motion.
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