Ash is Purest White / 江湖儿女 (2018)
Director & Screenplay: Jia Zhang-Ke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Zheng Xu
Follows a couple involved in the underworld/jiang hu in the city of DaTong and eventually elsewhere over two decades. The tone of some trailers (like the one below) is quite misleading. This is a pensive, personal type of film without exciting action or high stakes conflict.
This isn’t a plot heavy movie. The pace is relaxed. It can feel a bit slow at times but it never lingers too long on a scene. Events happen without much explanation for them but they don’t feel contrived or forced. The focus is on the characters, specifically the main couple, a woman Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend, Bin (Liao Fan) and more so on the former than the latter. They are involved in shady business but what sort of shady business they do is not revealed and simply implied. Their relationship changes over the course of the film and their emotions are often restrained. There’s a bit of a mysterious quality that is compelling rather than frustrating in its lack of specific detail. This relies heavily on good acting and both actors do their jobs well. This is definitely not an overwrought Hong Kong triad love story (as fun as those can be). But the tragedy here as love and jiang hu mix is more due to how the characters react to events and how they continue trying to survive rather than a seemingly inevitable suicide mission or last job set piece.
There are bits of social commentary, like how cities whose economy runs on coal are struggling. There’s the cruise on the Three Gorges Dam before it got flooded. These details help shape the backdrop of the story. But like many things in a Jia ZhangKe movie, I’m pretty sure there are more subtle details I missed or things that only a Chinese audience would likely notice.
The movie is mostly serious and sombre but it’s punctuated by moments of humor and absurdity, like the dance at the funeral. There’s also the con that Qiao uses at one point. A short appearance by actor Xu Zheng in the last third of the film elicited laughs from some of the Chinese members of the audience although perhaps more due to his reputation as a more comedic actor. His talk of UFOs is another moment of absurdity.
Technically, the movie is wonderfully filmed. Camera movement is unobtrusive. I noticed scenes that would start out with a static shot but then gradually move along with the main character in a barely perceptible way. Colors are vibrant. Initially there’s a lot of red and dark blacks inside seedy looking places but then there are some beautiful greenish outdoor scenes but also greyish muddy scenes near a nuclear power plant while it’s raining. There are some distant shots from far away or overhead of natural scenery or the city. Music is used sparingly with some Cantonese and Mandarin songs and also some dramatic drums at one point. The title of the movie refers to ash from a volcano that appears near the beginning and end offering some sort of symbolism.
It’s always been hard for me to articulate my appreciation of auteur or more “artsy” films since sometimes I’m not even sure I enjoyed them in the traditional sense of entertainment. I wouldn’t really call this super artsy but it’s definitely not done in mass-appeal style to appeal to the mainstream. There’s subtlety and nuance that makes me want to watch this again to see what details I missed the first time.