Cannes 2018 review: Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

China, 2001. In a room full of male mobsters, a woman overshadows a dozen men playing mah-jong. Her presence seems to defy the structure of the group, not by directly challenging the men, but by not accepting a default secondary role because of her gender. It’s the Jianghu underworld of the outskirts of Datong, a small coal-mining city in the Shanxi Province. These outlaw communities follow strict moral codes for mutual protection and support. The woman in the room is Qiao, a middle-aged woman in love with Bin, one of the youngest mobsters of the group.

After the killing of one of their brothers, the community – led by Bin – is looking for the perpetrators. During this quest, Bin is attacked by a group of youngsters and Qiao decides to scare them with a gun she found in their car. Once safe, they’re arrested. Qiao sacrifices herself by declaring the gun was hers, and is sentenced to five years in prison. The day of her release, Bin is not there to welcome her. She learns that her boyfriend left the city.

Ash is Purest White follows Qiao’s attempts to find and resume her relationship with Bin: a struggle of a woman trying to find a balance between her autonomy and the profound love she feels for an outcast man. The second act takes Qiao to the Three Gorges, where Bin is living. Completely vulnerable after prison, she risks everything to find this former boyfriend, unfolding her bravest, most skillful and unexpected layers. Jia confesses the lead character was born as a hybrid spirit of the characters Zhao Tao played in Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Still Life (2006), and finds in his actress the honesty and maturity that can only come after a lifelong relationship between performer and director. The subtlety of Jia’s directorial effort allows Zhao to shine above everything in the film, while Liao Fan’s impeccable portrayal of Bin finds a credible balance between the passive nature of the character and his explosive behaviour.

The film’s original title in Chinese is Jiang hu er nv which means Sons and Daughters of the Jianghu, borrowed from a work by Mei Fu, one of Jia’s main influences. Qiao and Bin are depicted as wayward orphans to a society that’s not growing at a human pace, and whose life choices depend severely on which cities the economic speculators are pointing at.

With Ash is Purest White, Jia Zhangke confirms his filmography is an irreplaceable document of the transformation suffered by China in the 21st Century. Even if the East/West dichotomy is not as relevant as in Mountains May Depart, music serves as a bridge between both sides of the world, with hordes of Chinese people dancing to The Village People as if they were cathartically dancing their way into global culture.

The last part of the film finds the characters back in a completely unrecognizable Datong. Economic development reached the once grim village. It is now a pastiche of new highways and post-modern housing towers. The romance tries to rebuild itself, yet it’s a different Qiao, a different Bin, and a different China.