Ash is Purest White

(, Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2018)


Spanning the 21st century so far, the story follows the low-level criminal Bin (Liao Fan) and his girlfriend Qiao (Zhao Tao) as, in various cities across China, they are separated by unequal prison sentences, distance and estrangement. As their destinies and fortunes change, their paths uneasily align again.


Jia’s film is, above all, the study of a complex female character, brilliantly incarnated by Zhao (who is married to the director). When we first see her in 2001, Qiao is not a stereotypical gangster’s moll; she is mature, resourceful, part of the daily activities of Bin’s criminal mob. When set adrift, alone and penniless, she intuitively scams her way across the country, like the rogue hero of a road movie.




Qiao also embraces the criminal code of loyalty, honour and righteousness – sometimes to her own detriment. On this level, the film forms an intriguing network with the two major crime-gangster sagas of 2019: Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Except that, of course, the “collateral damage” visited on women is here the central topic – no longer merely glimpsed, in the style of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather series (1972-1990), looking startled on the edges of man-filled frames or disappearing behind solemnly closing doors.


In Ash is Purest White, Jia once again explores his well-developed taste for sudden temporal ellipsis, naturalistic staging, understated expressive effects, sidelong stories, gaudy pop music, and the occasional burst of special-effects fantasy. Focused on both the historical big picture and the individual emotional plane, he gravitates to characters who cling to values – in a world that steadily erodes value of every kind, whether economic, emotional or moral.

© Adrian Martin September 2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search