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Non-Review Review: Ash is Purest White

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

There’s something strangely hypnotic in Zhangke Jia’s Ash is Purest White.

The film is a (quasi-) love story stretched across seventeen years and told in a set of three vignettes as the lives of the lead characters intersect in a rapidly-changing China. There’s an epic sweep to Zhangke Jia’s otherwise intimate narrative, a tale of two characters whose circumstances are constantly changing but who very clearly exist in orbit of one another. At one point, Qiao describes herself as a “prisoner of the universe”, and there seems to be some truth in that. No matter what happens, no matter how far she travels, a rubber band always seems to snap back. Indeed, Ash is Purest White has a compelling symmetry to it, the first and final third reflecting one another and suggesting that no matter how hard the characters might push, they’ll end up back where they started.

There is an endearing dreamlike quality to Ash is Purest White, a sense of mood that runs through the film’s two hours and seventeen minutes. At one point in the middle section of the film, a supporting character monologues at length about the idea of unidentified flying objects reported in the skies above the region. It’s a strange intersection for what began as a crime-inflected love story about gang violence, but even stranger for how Ash is Purest White commits to this strange metaphysical tangent. Shortly after this conversation, Qiao has her own experience of mysteries wonder in the haunted skies over the region. a strangely moving and almost spiritual sequence.

Ash is Purest White is full of these sorts of images and moments, beats that capture the weirdness and eccentricity of life, and the strange beauty to be found in the smallest of pleasures.

Early in Ash is Purest White, Qiao ventures out into the wilderness with her lover Bin. The two characters are nominally in that vast empty space so that Bin might teach Qiao how to use a gun. There have been some indications that the delicate balance of the criminal underworld in which Bin operates might suddenly tip over into oblivion, and training Qiao in the use of a firearm seems a logical decision. The pair chose to practice in the shadow of an old volcano. Qiao wonders whether the volcano is still active, and ruminates on the beautiful purity of ash from an eruption. Bin seems less moved by the idea, but Qiao understands. Anything that have been through a crucible like the inside of a volcano must be pure.

This seems to be the central thesis of Ash is the Purest White, as it relates to both Qiao herself and the bond that she shares with Bin. Ash is Purest White puts its protagonist through quite the emotional wringer. Her fortunes rise and fall over the course of the film, her fortunes changing dramatically, often in the space of small moments. Qiao is on top of the world, then finds herself cast down among the flotsam and jetsam of society, and then seems to pull herself back towards something resembling stability. Although Bin undergoes a similar journey, Ash is Purest White keeps a lot of the important beats off-screen. Everybody travelling through the world is also changed by it, but this is Qiao’s story.

Ash is Purest White is anchored in a powerhouse performance from Tao Zhao as Qiao. It would be very easy for Ash is Purest White to descend into depressing slog about the humiliation and suffering of a character who is subject to the arbitrary whims of an uncaring universe. However, Zhangke Jia’s script is smart enough to avoid this, peppering the film with well-observed moments of humour and small moments of humanism. Qiao refuses to be a passive victim of everything heaped upon her. The film’s strongest stretch is the middle act, which follows Qiao as she embarks on a journey to reunite with Bin. Her money and identification card are stolen, when means that Qiao has to essentially hustle for her meals and even her basic survival.

These scenes could be harrowing and bleak; the latest indignities heaped upon a character who has already suffered. However, due to the combination of a sharp script and a winning performance, Qiao responds to the universe’s indifference with something approaching a knowing smirk. There is a great deal of fun to be had in watching Qiao resourcefully manoeuvre through the world, in sequences as impressive as her canny hijacking of a taxi-driver’s motorcycle or as minor as her use of a water bottle to quietly jam a malfunctioning automatic door. Tao Zhao has an impressive amount of charisma, even within the film’s quiet and introspective scenes. Very few actors can radiate warmth and intelligence so effectively while silently eating noodles at a stranger’s wedding.

There is a sense in which Qiao’s perspective mirrors that of the film. Ash is the Purest White is a movie that is often quiet rather than loud, a film that seems to be constantly observing and improvising. The film watches its characters without judgment or prejudice, instead curious about the particulars of how the world around them works. Qiao describes herself as a “prisoner of the universe”, and Ash is the Purest White never pretends to have any real understanding of the mechanics of how the universe works. It is just monitoring the experiment and reporting the results. This is obvious in the way the film is edited. There are multiple shots of characters in crowds or audiences, held for extended periods, allowing the audience themselves to bring the important details into focus.

That discussion of aliens and space ships in the middle-section of the film seems almost a statement of purpose. A character speculates that aliens already walk among mankind. Ash is the Purist White repeatedly suggests what these outsiders might see, the bizarre and contradictory nature of the human condition. The sound mixing by Thibaut Dupuis and Maxime Cordon is superb, particularly in sequences using diagetic music. Music played on tape or through speakers sounds naturalistic rather than being incorporated into the film’s own audio mix, which adds an uncanny and surreal quality to the visuals. Characters dancing to a tape recording do not appear as impressive as they might in a more proactive film, they just look very odd.

Despite its runtime, Ash is the Purest White is always compelling. It always seems fascinated by everything that it is studying. The first section of the film features two supporting characters who are champion ballroom dancers, who do not belong within the world of underground crime within the film. However, the straightforwardness with which the movie treats their intrusion, treating their appearances as the sort of thing that happens in a world not strictly codified by genre conventions, results in something that is all the more mesmerising and beautiful for how surreal it looks. Ash is the Purest White doesn’t bend over backwards to justify the inclusion of these professional-level dancers, it just treats them as something to be watched. The results are fascinating.

Indeed, Ash is the Purest White seems just as confused by the passage of time as Qiao or Bin. The film takes place in three sections over eighteen years, each helpfully signposted by a piece of dialogue from an impartial observer, often delivered over the intercom. In that time, the world itself has changed as much as Qiao or Bin. The film reflects this in ways that are both large and small; the gradual evolution of the mobile telephones that the leads carry, the increasingly complex security systems that they employ. Modernity is creeping into the world of Ash is the Purest White even in the film’s earliest section, set just after the turn of the new millennium, and there is a sense that there is nothing that can be done to stop this.

Modernity sneaks up on Qiao and Bin. A friend is brutally murdered by some young thugs in a carpark outside a sauna, with no reason or motivation given. Bin is attacked by another set of kids with a metal pipe, who cannot answer when he demands a reason for their behaviour. However, the changes taking place in Chinese culture run much deeper than youthful violence. There is a sense that society itself is changed. Qiao’s father worries about private control of the mines. Bin tries to break into property development. When a friend expresses his appreciation for ballroom dancing, Qiao explains, that it is “too western” for her. However, even Qiao and Bin cannot escape western influence; one memorable sequence featured the pair dancing enthusiastically to “Y.M.C.A.”

However, this influx of western influence is not the only marker of change. Ash is Purest White is not a polemic railing against the erosion of Chinese social values by foreign culture. Instead, the film makes a broader argument about how time erodes everything. In the middle section of the film, after a long separation, Qiao journeys back to Bin. She journeys on a ferry that travels through a valley. The tour guide asks the travellers to not their surroundings. Government projects will raise the water level and flood the valley. The waters will consume so much of what man has built on this land, erase centuries of construction work. It will all be washed away by natural forces, buried beneath a pristine lake. In the end, Ash is Purest White suggests, nothing lasts forever.

It’s a powerful and emotive sentiment, and it gives the movie a raw power. Ash is Purest White is a beautiful acknowledgement of the toll that time takes on all things, and a compelling study of an ever-changing world, anchored in a superlative central performance.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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