Ash is Purest White is no exception within Jia Zhangke’s cinema in terms of its sweeping scope. Platform (2000) charted the late 1970s to the late 1980s and Mountains May Depart (2015) spans from 1999 to 2025. Like Mountains May Depart, Ash is Purest White encompasses three temporal swaths of contemporary Chinese history: 2001, 2006, and 2018. But rendering it exceptional is its most explicit engagement with and use of genre (and biggest budget) yet for Jia, specifically the gangster noir melodrama in the vein of John Woo’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ films of the 1980s and early 1990s, first glimpsed in A Touch of Sin (2013). The Woo reference is deliberate, which Jia himself makes deliberate in the film: throughout the first section set in 2001, Sally Yeh’s theme song for Woo’s The Killer (‘Shallow Drunk Life’) is a constant extradiegetic refrain. Even the film’s literal Chinese title of Sons and Daughters of the Jianghu links it to gangster/triad works, as jianghu comes from martial arts fiction but has come to refer to (among other things) marginal social spaces and their distinct relationships/bonds, including the criminal underworld.
Jia takes jianghu as his thematic and narrative lens with/through which to register on the screen the concept’s emphasis of life on the margins, in this case, Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her mobster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan). In the film’s first section, the couple constitutes a small-town petty criminal enterprise that has carved out for them an enviable social position in their city of Datong. Bin in particular is highly regarded/respected and has many brothers on whom he can rely to help him do his work and/or bidding. Encapsulating their position at the top of the social hierarchy is a nightclub sequence in which the couple dances to ‘YMCA’ surrounded by others and then is gifted a ballroom dance, performed by professional dancers, by a real estate developer who discreetly asks for Bin’s services. What could have been the beginning of an expansive development of their enterprise dissipates, however. In its place emerges the younger generation calling into question the leadership and activities that Bin and the developer represent, culminating with the film’s most violent scenes and unwittingly setting in motion a process of emasculation for Bin and picaresque journey for Qiao.
What appears to be a film about men like Bin, power, and society/social changes becomes a film about Qiao and her perspective (of these men, power, and society/social changes). Interestingly, Jia himself related at the film’s AFI FEST screening that the story he initially set out to write had men as the focal point. But as the script evolved, it became centered on Qiao instead and the journey that she undertakes, from occupying the top of a small-time social hierarchy with Bin; to wielding/shooting a gun, getting arrested, and serving five years; and to winding her way around cities to find Bin. Qiao’s post-jail journey amongst society composes the second section set in 2006 and her second reunion with Bin starts the third and last section set in 2018.
One of the most stunning moments of the film, however, is Qiao and Bin’s first reunion. Favouring restraint over unchecked sparring, the result is no less emotionally gripping. Upon meeting, they first walk around Fengjie, quiet under the night sky, before settling in a motel room and finally communicating with each other, frankly yet calmly, even whisperingly, about their contrary expectations (from themselves and from one another). As Bin, actor Fan is so commanding—and thus refreshing as one who can hold his ground next to Zhao’s own dynamic screen presence.
To define the film simply as a ‘gangster epic/saga’ through and through would be misleading and even incur disappointment with scenes like the one above. One should instead ask what Jia is addressing through his invocation of the jianghu and elements of the gangster noir melodrama. This question would actually point to conceptual shifts with regards to male identities, hierarchy, social power, and how they interlock with each other, especially in an ever-(re)developing China of the twenty-first century. This same question also extends to the significance of whose perspective Jia has chosen to represent these interlocking changes. In this way, at its most outward level, the film is the picaresque journey of a woman and her firsthand perspective of and experiences with the impact of these same interlocking conceptual shifts. And while Qiao is rendered the privileged perspective in the jianghu of an otherwise homosocial environment of small-time gangsters, the operative word for Jia in mobilising jianghu is less immediately ‘criminal’ than ‘marginal.’
Take the opening shots wherein the camera rests on anonymous faces on a bus, including an infant sleeping. A bit later in the film but still in the first section, another video excerpt punctures the diegesis, this time with the camera gazing at people plaza dancing. Linking these video excerpts is the fact that they present ordinary common-folk, those from the margins, be they slightly within, right on the margins, or (far) outside them. Though these video excerpts disappear in the subsequent sections, Qiao (and to a lesser extent Bin) takes their place (among them) as she moves within the jianghu. In fact, Qiao’s first appearance in the film is a shot of her on a bus, cut as to place her amongst the passengers in the video. The scattered characters whom Qiao meets during her journey only reinforce this point: the seemingly Christian woman who ends up stealing her money and ID; the young man whom she tricks into giving her money; the talkative man from Xinjiang (Xu Zheng) and his UFO project but who just has a convenience store; or the motorcycle driver whose wife works in Guangdong and is therefore lonely. In short, people who are at the margins, by choice or by circumstance.
This last point brings us to the last shot of the film, which takes a surveillance camera image of Qiao standing in a hallway by herself, leaning against a wall. The camera carefully zooms in on her surveilled image, slowly becoming illegible and unknown despite having accompanied her on her journey and thus witnessed what she has gone through. As Jia explained, such an image spoke emotionally to him in the sense that she becomes an anonymous entity, one who nevertheless has stories and experiences that are worth knowing about and sharing.
Ash is Purest White was shown on November 9 and 12 at AFI FEST.