Ash Is Purest White

 

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An emotional journey covering eighteen years but one which lacks a worthwhile destination.

 

Ash is Purest White

  

The quality of the filmmaking here is impressive, but that is hardly surprising since this film is the work of the well-established Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke. The fanciful rather poetic title Ash Is Purest White links to a scene in which the two leading characters, Qiao played by the director's wife Zhao Tao and Gao Bin played by Liao Fan, are seen out of doors and in a region where a volcano stands. However this striking title, symbolic as it is, was not the one under which the film was made and which in fact seems more crucial to the tale. That title was one which translates as Sons and Daughters of the Jianghai, a reference to the code of conduct supposedly embraced in China by those in the criminal underworld. Guo Bin is a gangster in Datong who runs a gambling house and Qiao is a woman from a poor mining community who looks to have gained much by becoming his mistress.

 

Given the criminal background, it is natural enough that the story should involve underworld rivalry and, indeed, a scene of violence provides a key moment, one that leads to Qiao accepting a jail sentence of five years to protect her lover. Nevertheless, this is hardly a gangster tale being instead a study of the relationship between Qiao and Bin over a period of years (the film starts in Shanxi Province in 2001, moves to the Three Gorges dam in 2006 and then returns to Datong winding up in 2018). The aging of the characters is convincingly handled and the actors are fine. Indeed, Zhao Tao has a wonderful presence and we can wholly share Jia's fascination with her aided by the splendid colour photography of Éric Gautier. However, our fascination with Qiao herself is rather less. We certainly assume that her love for Bin is genuine, but more background detail was needed regarding their initial rapport in order to make us care about them. As the tale goes on, Bin becomes increasingly less worthy of her love if he ever had been, so what holds us firmly throughout the first two-thirds of the film is the expert flow of the storytelling and the appeal of the players rather than any great concern for the fate of the characters. As so often in Jia's work, the tale reflects changes in life in China, but that is background rather than an essential part of this film.

 

For 90 minutes or more, Ash Is Purest White, although lacking the material to make a masterpiece, comes across as a very, very adroit piece of film craft.  But Jia's directorial talent often outweighs his writing skills   and, as with its predecessor Mountains May Depart (2015), he unwisely opts for a long running time (136 minutes here). The film's third Act becomes rather boring. First of all it wastes time by introducing a tiresome new character, a man who claims to have a business taking tourists on a quest to spot UFOs: although most people would seek to avoid him, Qiao is improbably drawn to him during a train journey and it all adds an extra quarter of an hour or so to the film quite unnecessarily. Thereafter Bin is brought back in, but by now we just feel that Qiao would be better off without him. That she chooses to look after him in an echo of the honour among thieves concept of the jianghai hardly resonates because now we are just waiting for the film to end.

 

Original title: Jiang hu er nü.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang, Feng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan, Zhang Yibai, Ding Jiali, Zhang Yi, Dong Zijian, Li Xuan, Cha Na, Kang Kang, Feng Jiamei, Liu Min, Zang Xiaojun, Zhang Jiaojiao.

 

Dir Jia Zhang-Ke, Pro Shozo Ichiyama, Screenplay Jia Zhang-Ke, Ph Éric Gautier, Art Dir Liu Weixin, Ed Matthieu Laclau and Lin Xudong, Music Lim Giong, Action Choreographer Yick Tin Hong.

 

Shanghai Film Group Corporation/Xstream Pictures (Beijing)/Huanxi Media Group Limited/MK Productions/ARTE France Cinéma-New Wave Films.
136 mins. People's Republic of China/France/Hong Kong. 2018. Rel: 26 April 2019. Cert. 15.