Continuing his work in the epic mode, Chinese director Jia Zhanke’s latest film Ash is Purest White spans nearly two decades as it follows the fortunes of industrious mah-jong parlour proprietor Qiao — played by the filmmaker regular collaborator and wife Zhao Tao. As with Jia’s last film, Mountains May Depart, he utilises a split, elliptical structure to drop in with Qiao at several important periods in her life: as a fashionable small-town gangster’s girlfriend in 2001, a freshly released prisoner forced to commit petty cons, and finally home in 2018. Again, Jia uses formal signifiers to demarcate the different time periods, matching periods with different camera technologies and aspect ratios. One constant is the presence of Bin, moving from the position of Qiao’s boyfriend, to aloof ex and beyond as the decades pass.
Ash is Purest White is built as a melodrama and structured around the fortunes of Qiao, who holds our attention with a quietly virtuoso performance. But as many have noted, the true subject of the film is as much the modernisation of China as it is our bright heroine. From the wild and violent opening chapter through to the downbeat denouement, Jia provides a tour of China’s massive economic development and its effect on its people. There are grandly impressive grace notes, such as a boat ride through the under-construction Three Gorges region, and a hyper-physical mass-brawl that’s as tightly choreographed as any action movie, but this is a slow-burn epic that tracks a tumultuous recent national history through an individual saga of crime, betrayal, revenge and economic hardships.