ASH IS PUREST WHITE (2019, Jia Zhang-ke)
Only the second Jia film I’ve seen, so I can’t speak to this film’s references — oblique and explicit — to such works as UNKNOWN PLEASURES, STILL LIFE, or MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART. But much like the one I am familiar with, A TOUCH OF SIN, it’s a formally confident exploration of Chinese society filtered through specific characters and their artificial dramas. Whereas SIN was ultimately optimistic (though it condemned the nation’s oppressive treatment of laborers, it celebrated its capacity for tradition and creativity), this one feels sadder and more poignant. It’s also less interesting, if only because the idea of “the passage of time” is an element explored on the reg throughout world cinema.
Also, whereas SIN told three different stories, this one stays rooted to Zhao Tao’s magnificent heroine Qiao — and Zhao plays her with sensational force, vulnerability, and often understated boiling emotion. She doesn’t get any huge scenery-chewing awards bait moments, but the cumulative effect of her breaking down throughout decades — while maintaining traditional honor and stubborn loyalty — is the best thing about the film.
If the text is Qiao’s continual sacrifice and graceful aging, the subtext is China itself reckoning with change. Therefore Jia frames dozens of terrific shots with Zhao standing still in front of awesome, dwarfing images of the country: imposing mountains, stone buildings, dark villages, gaping crowds, and a train platform where a car, carrying a life that could have been, chugs further and further away from her. As the narrative lurches from 2001 to 2006 to 2017, we hear of the rising water levels at the Three Gorges Dam, the end of mining towns and expulsion of their work forces, and ultimately we see a doctor attempt to connect with his patient on WeChat (followed by a key character’s exit made through mobile text). But these signposts take up a lot of time that could have been spent on ramping up our interest in Qiao and Bin instead of coasting to an airless final half hour. Perhaps the non-climax is the point, but just because our lives tend to peak early, that doesn’t mean movies have to.