Ash Is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nv)
Jia Zhang-Ke’s Ash is Purest White wrong-foots us at every step. The central mob romance is maintained and destroyed by pride and bloody-mindedness, but there are many left-field detours and tonal leaps, all drenched in pervasive melancholy. This is a digressive and baffling work, held together by a rich, expressive performance from Zhao Tao as Qiao, the mob girlfriend who forfeits her liberty for love, only to see that love renounced.
Qiao enforces the rule of Bin (Liao Fan), a mobster who runs a gambling syndicate, tacitly accepted by local authorities. She’s hard and ruthless, streetwise and sharp, sensitive and in love. But a rather extreme example of Chekhov’s Gun principle leads to her incarceration. After five years she’s released into a changed world that contains a changed man.
The director positions his characters with great delicacy. The choreography of the fighting, dancing and gambling scenes is expertly handled. The tension ramps up, often while positions of status and norms of social etiquette fall apart. It always feels like we miss the decisive blow. The score thuds on top of the action, closing the instances of high drama, while YMCA persists as a perverse musical motif.
China is shown in its new-money grandeur and expansiveness. The dilapidated mines are closing while cavernous stadiums are built. These new constructions frame a profound loneliness. When Qiao and Bin enter, they are diminished, shrunken into the earth.
Ash Is Purest White is about the process of time, and the couple age remarkably accurately. They’re weathered, beaten, hollowed out. It’s a saddening depiction of fixed prejudices in a spiralling world. The fortunes of each fluctuate. Over a decade one then the other takes the emotional upper hand. Feeling eventually deadens and bodies deteriorate.
It doesn’t quite come together. The movie gets looser as it goes along, while there’s an outrageous extraterrestrial moment planted in the middle. And given his initially wise and respectful demeanour, Bin’s hardened soul cannot be fully explained away by alcoholism and macho hubris. Overall, this is a challenging, intriguing film, one concluded on notes of sadness, loss and regret.
Ash Is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nv) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch a clip from Ash Is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nv) here: