By James Lattimer

It speaks to the richness of Jia Zhangke’s oeuvre that Ash Is Purest White already feels like a career summation, even though the Chinese director has yet to turn 50. Transition has always been at the heart of Jia’s work, but this, his twelfth feature-length film, explores the theme across three carefully intertwined levels, gently tracing out the progress of a relationship, a country, and his own development as a filmmaker to arrive at what feels like a definitive statement on each of them: nothing changes, nothing stays the same.

The film’s central relationship is between Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her small-time gangster boyfriend Bi (Liao Fan), its dynamic already largely apparent from how the couple dance in a gaudy Datong nightclub in 2001 near the film’s beginning. After romping together in tandem to The Village People’s “YMCA,” Bi’s gun suddenly falls out of his pocket and drops to the floor. Qiao is startled and then disgruntled, even stopping the dance for a moment as a means of reproach. Yet with the music still pounding, it’s as if she’s incapable of staying angry with him for long, as she soon begins to gyrate again with even greater intensity, his misdemeanour already forgotten or taken as par for the course.

A similar pattern of harmony, vexation, disappointment, and ever more weary acceptance will duly repeat over the next 17 years, as Qiao continues to offer Bi her unconditional support regardless of how unreliable, selfish, and weak he ends up being; even their initial love is progressively transformed into something else. The biggest sacrifice she makes for him is when she saves his life by intervening in a highly choreographed street brawl, firing Bi’s illegal gun into the air, which lands her in prison for the next five years. With Bi nowhere to be seen upon her release, she sets out to central China to find him, ending up in the city of Fengjie, before another decade has suddenly passed and the two of them are back in Shanxi Province.

The sense of stasis that suffuses Qiao and Bi’s relationship is thrown into even sharper relief by the signifiers of movement and progress that Jia places around it. The clunky Nokia phone Qiao uses in 2006 may have given way to a smartphone by 2017, but the map app still just points the way back to the film’s initial location, while Bi’s photo and voice messages only reinforce the same attitude towards Qiao he’s demonstrated from the outset: one step forward, two steps back. Both before her prison term and after her release, Qiao is shown on various forms of transportation—buses, cars, motorbikes, ferries, trains—with such conspicuous frequency that Jia appears to suggest that regardless of how much she criss-crosses China, she’ll never find the route to lead her away from Bi. The narration anyway tends to favour moments of transit or apparent insignificance over more conventionally consequential events, keeping many of the key developments in Qiao and Bi’s relationship and their respective lives offscreen, the focus lying instead on the various moods and feelings they trigger, which only reach fruition in between.

Yet it isn’t just Qiao who appears to be travelling without moving. Alongside the numerous places she visits or talks of visiting, the people around her always reference other ones, talking of where opportunity lies or where it has already evaporated, with all these numerous regions and cities gradually coalescing into something akin to a cartography of longing, each destination only a promise, never a certainty. The impression of an entire country on the move is amplified even further when the camera slips away from Qiao to focus on those around her: the rest of the travellers on the bus to Datong; the people holding their possessions by the Yangtze, no idea where they will be resettled; the other passengers on the train to Wuhan, countless points of connection at their disposal. The brief, beautifully tender encounter Qiao shares with one of their number, an apparent businessman trying to branch out by offering UFO tours (played by Zhang Yibai, one of three filmmakers to cameo in the film, along with Diao Yinan and Feng Xiaogang), brings her own melancholy fate into alignment with one of many others being lived out across China. Her decision to leave him slumbering on the train headed for the far-off northwest is the recognition that her own dead-end relationship can likely only be traded for another, yet another change that won’t bring progress.

It’s ultimately the middle section, set on and around the Yangtze at the yet-to-be-completed Three Gorges Dam, that touches on the film’s true essence. The motion of the river provides an apt metaphor for how Ash Is Purest White behaves as a whole, a reading given credence by its Chinese title Jianghu Ernü, whose first word refers both to the gangster credo Bi and Qiao supposedly follow as well as literally translating as “rivers and lakes.” Like a river that narrows and expands by turns along its course, the tempo according to which the plot unfolds is in constant flux: some scenes, like an early drinking ritual or the brawl that lands Qiao in prison, proceed by way of rapid cuts, constant camera movement, fast dialogue, or all three, while others, such as the couple’s first meeting after years apart, slow to a veritable crawl, with each individual framing, shot, and sentence left hanging in the air for maximum muted impact. Yet for all the different moods and registers that feed into the film, Jia’s skill at modulating tone is such that all this heterogeneity still produces one single flow.

Alongside settings and structural conceits, many of these moods and registers seem to have wandered in from Jia’s other works: the rapid-fire martial-arts stylings of A Touch of Sin (2013); the backdrop of Datong familiar from Unknown Pleasures (2002); the three-part structure and repeated pop songs from Mountains May Depart (2015); or the exquisite melancholy of 24 City (2008), to name just a few, while the presence of Zhao Tao, whose wonderfully understated acting style reaches new heights here, equally conjures up all the other characters she’s played over the years. Of all the references to Jia’s cinematic past, the most explicit ones come from Still Life (2006), as Qiao takes the same ferry down the Yangtze as in the previous film, wearing the same shade of yellow and carrying the same water bottle her spiritual cousin Shen Hong did all those years ago, with the same UFO later passing overhead. Despite these similarities, though, everything is different, as what used to be the present has now become the past. This change is visible both in Zhao Tao’s face and in one of the images shared by both films, a shot of a sign on the river bank showing the projected level of the reservoir. One points to a future yet to happen, the other to a past that only exists in memory, the original now buried under so much water.

If it’s impossible to capture the same image twice, there’s no going back as a filmmaker either, although past concerns always stick. Perhaps that’s why, though Ash Is Purest White contains echoes from so many of Jia’s films, it doesn’t directly resemble any single one of them. And it’s once again by comparing the two sets of images which bookend the film that the transitions of the last 20 years can be contemplated, whether in relation to Jia’s career or beyond. The film’s opening scene was shot nearly 20 years ago, with the same digital camera Jia used until 2006, showing documentary footage of a baby on a public bus, marvelling at the hubbub around it. Its final image is a shot of a monitor, which shows what an outside surveillance camera is currently recording, namely Qiao on the street, alone: the direct to the mediated, the collective to the individual, the bare-bones to the sophisticated, possibility to reality.

Tagged with →  

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Cinema Scope Issue 86 Table of Contents

    The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020 Interviews The Girl and the Spider *En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène sociale by Jordan Cronk *The More →

  • The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020

    1. Days (Tsai Ming-liang) 2. The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter and Anders Edström) 3. The Year of More →

  • Gag Orders: The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah

    Bobby Seale makes a cameo of sorts midway through Judas and the Black Messiah, as Martin Sheen’s porcine J. Edgar Hoover—checking in personally on the progress of the FBI’s campaign against Chicago Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya)—is shown an artist’s sketch of the BPP’s national chairman gagged and shackled in the courtroom during the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. This revolting spectacle understandably serves as the mid-film dramatic highpoint of The Trial of the Chicago 7, when the repeated, suitably indignant demands by Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to serve as his own defense counsel in the absence of his hospitalized lawyer—and presiding judge Julius Hoffman’s (Frank Langella) incredible refusal to grant this right, instead directing that Seale’s defense should be undertaken by the representatives for the other defendants—ultimately lead to him being bodily removed from the courtroom by marshals and returned in chains. That image of a defiant Black man, forcibly silenced and immobilized in a hall of American justice, became one of William Burroughs’ “frozen moment[s] at the end of the newspaper fork,” when everyone—including those who would applaud it—can see what they’re being fed. More →

  • Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, US)

    Entering Riz Ahmed in the disability cosplay sweepstakes as a young drummer coping with hearing loss, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal originated as a lightly meta vehicle for husband-and-wife sludge-metal duo Jucifer to be directed by Derek Cianfrance, with whom Marder co-wrote The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). That the final result is more surprising than the rote uplift narrative suggested by its edifying logline is a testament to both Ahmed’s cagey intensity... More →

  • The Primacy of Perception: Ramon & Silvan Zürcher on The Girl and the Spider

    Near the midpoint of The Girl and the Spider—Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s overdue, much anticipated follow-up to their masterful debut feature, The Strange Little Cat (2013)—a character launches into another of the Zürcher brothers’ distinctive anecdotal monologues. Mara (Henriette Confurius), who is as close as this film gets to a protagonist, describes for her neighbour, Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger-Vinet), an incident that occurred the previous day between herself and her newly ex-roommate (and perhaps ex-girlfriend) Lisa (Liliane Amuat). “I was in my room while Lisa was on the toilet,” she recounts. “She asked me to bring her a roll of toilet paper. Instead of giving it to her, I walked past the door from left to right, from Lisa’s point of view.” The image cuts to the scene while she recalls it, privileging us with a more objective account of the incident: a fixed shot showing Mara stand up from her desk, grab a package of toilet paper, and march past the door, her arms outstretched like a zombie. More →