'Ash Is Purest White'
Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s latest movie, ‘Ash Is Purest White’, continues to mine many of the themes that have characterized his films over the last several decades. He once again collaborates with his muse and life-partner Zhao Tao to create a winding, compelling journey through a character’s life, finding along the way moments of tragedy, romance, violence and affection.
What sets this iteration apart is its larger scope, tracing the history of China through the decades from the perspective of a woman whose affection for a local gangster forces her to find her own way forward. Told against the backdrop of an explosion in Chinese social change, including the building of the Three Gorges Dam and the resulting magnitude of change for those communities consumed by the deluge, Zhangke crafts an exquisitely personal tale that still echoes larger, more universal themes.
Many of the filmmaker’s quirks are on display, including his recent fascination with Village People songs. (His last movie, ‘Mountains May Depart’, repeatedly used the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of “Go West.”) This time, we’re treated to a half dozen uses of “YMCA,” the anthemic, participatory song landing a long way from its leatherboy roots.
Zhao Tao’s transformation from relatively meek girlfriend to her own boss is the core of the story, reflecting the similar changes that China itself undertakes during this tumultuous period. The metaphorical conceit works superbly, focusing the film in a narrative trajectory far more satisfying than many of Zhangke’s others. Similarly, his trademark triptych structure is better used in this context, forming a more coherent and interlinked storyline that still has its self-contained portions, allowing each section to breathe.
The movie still has moments of indulgence, and as with most of his works a trim or too would do wonders to keep things even tighter and less rambling. Still, it’s a remarkable film from a renowned director who still manages to inject originality and surprise in movies that hew closely to established forms. This may well be his best film of late, the culmination of many of his tendencies into a piece that speaks not only to the elements of this film but to all of his that have come before.