Ash is Purest White (2018)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 17min

A monstrous volcano emerges from a landscape of flat, green fields, rising up in the background where mob boss, Bin, teaches Qiao, his lover, how to shoot a gun. “Anything that burns at a high temperature is made pure,” she ruminates, gazing at its beauty, and Jia Zhangke thus draws up the central metaphor which defines the three chapters of Ash is the Purest White. She suffers deep losses and hardships for the sacrifices that she makes, but rather than letting this intense pressure corrupt or embitter her attitude, she becomes assertive, kind, and clever – the purest version of herself. Where the trifurcated narrative structure of Jia’s previous film, Mountains May Depart, was slightly weakened by its lack of formal consistency, it serves a much greater purpose here in capturing the three stages of Qiao’s emotional growth, each represented by a specific colour.

In the year 2001, green is chosen to characterise Qiao’s youth, naivety, and inability to fully grasp worldly matters. It is there in the painted walls, stained glass, and mahjong tables where Bin and Qiao spend much of their time, but it is also present in the open fields when she is taught how to shoot a gun and, more significantly, the principles of the “jianghu”. This Chinese term lacks any direct English translation, but in remaining the only Chinese word left untouched and “pure” in the film, it retains a unique cultural significance. Traditionally, it has referred to the martial arts community of wuxia tales, and in more recent times it has been used in reference to criminal underworlds. But most importantly, it is spoken of here as an ethical code, through which its adherents persevere until they either break or strengthen in spirit.

Green in the décor all through this chapter.
Green lighting in this incredible fight scene to end the first act, with a hint of the red to come.

Jia, still wearing his Michelangelo Antonioni influence on his sleeve, remains dedicated to the manmade architecture and natural landforms in his backgrounds, especially in his visual emphasis on the vast, green volcano protruding from a flat terrain. It forms a stirring backdrop to Qiao’s own grappling with the tenets of jianghu, reminding us of the intense pressure that may form within this otherwise isolated, apparently innocuous being. In an incredible long take towards the end of this chapter that showcases a tightly choreographed fight scene lit by neon green lights, we watch as Bin is violently beaten by assailants, this ordeal only coming to an end when Qiao interferes and puts herself at risk.

After taking that first step into the heat of the volcano, Qiao is whisked away from Bin for five long years, and takes the opportunity to mould her identity in the flames of hardship. Quite appropriately, this second chapter to her story becomes a passionate, fiery red. In a direct call back to Still Life, Jia returns to the Three Gorges Dam as the site of these ex-lovers’ reunion, once again using the slowly-flooding city to remind us that this is where cultural histories and personal memories come to die. Where this setting was permeated by a green haze in Still Life, it is now infused with a faint, yellow tint, and punctuated by bursts of red in furniture, flowers, costumes, and of course, the vivid Wushan Yangtze River Bridge, its façade appearing for a third time in Jia’s filmography.

Jia is continuing his brilliant use of architecture to crowd out characters, but he is far more active in curating specific colour palettes than we have seen from him before.
Red all through this second chapter of Qiao’s journey, as well as one of Zhao Tao’s best performances.

It is surely no coincidence that the film which marks perhaps Zhao Tao’s best performance to date also demonstrates a particular interest on Jia’s part in the way she is blocked against other actors. Jia’s muse has always been a reliable vessel in conveying ambiguous, internal conflict, but never more so than in Qiao’s eventual confrontation with Bin, where she just cannot summon the respect to make eye contact with him. Though seething with feelings of betrayal, Zhao also brings a quiet confidence to Qiao’s recognition that the issue lies in his own brokenness, having buckled under the pressure of the jianghu lifestyle. Even as the décor of the hotel room where they meet is still painted in vivid reds, a green, neon light shines through the window, subtly reminding the ex-lovers of the innocent past they once shared, and pushing them on to some sort of resolution.

In this tense reunion, we get a throwback to the green hues so abundant in the first chapter.
Then right after, we move immediately into the final chapter, marked by its blues.

The cool, blue hues of the final chapter emerge almost immediately after this meeting, as if Qiao’s impassioned disposition has been suddenly lifted out of the volcano and doused with water. It is in the shift to 2017 though, nine years later, that we meet Qiao in her final, purest form, sitting as a high-ranking member of the jianghu which Bin once governed. After suffering a stroke from his alcoholism, Bin is now bound to a wheelchair and comes calling to Qiao for help, recognising her as the strongest, most dependable person in his life. The relationship that reignites between them isn’t romantic, but rather protective and considerate. Returning to the volcano backdrop where he taught her about jianghu all those years ago, she now teaches him how to walk again, returning the favour in a touching moment that brings their relationship full circle. Perplexed by her persistence in helping him despite all he has done to hurt her, she recalls the self-sacrificing principles of jianghu which he has forgotten.

“In the jianghu we talk about righteousness. You’re no longer in the jianghu. So you wouldn’t understand.”

Jia using landforms to define characters, much like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura.

Though each chapter in Qiao’s journey is separated by Jia’s shifting colour palettes, they are bound together by his return to the more naturalistic style of camerawork that governed his earlier films. Whether he is moving between characters in mid-shots and close-ups to capture the heat of an emotionally charged moment, or setting it back to absorb the full architectural weight of their surroundings, his long takes effectively preserve the realism of each scene, letting the progression of moods emerge organically without the manipulation of overzealous cutting.

As we see in the inexplicable insertion of a reality-shattering UFO though, Jia isn’t always able to muster up the formal conviction that he has shown in his strongest works, especially as this exact same device was used to much greater effect in Still Life. But at the same time, this film still stands among his most structurally impressive, as he instils its sound design, music, architecture, and colours with a soothing repetition that echoes down through all three chapters of Qiao’s life. Many of Jia’s previous movies might be more accurately described as landscapes than portraits, and yet it is in his interweaving of several complex, recurring motifs in Ash is Purest White that he creates an epic character study of feminine strength, and its moulding in the fiery heat of adversity.

Jia using the social landscape of modern day China as a background to this emotional journey of love and hardship.

Ash is Purest White is currently unavailable to stream in Australia.

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