Twelve features into his oeuvre as China’s most essential modern filmmaker, Jia Zhangke continues to remix his own work in Ash Is Purest White, a doomed romance whose protagonist resolutely takes control of her own life. The film opens with documentary footage from 2001, shot soon after Jia got his first video camera and featuring a sleeping young child on a bus as the motion outside the moving vehicle rattles the frame. Even without that background knowledge, it’s an effective bit of place-setting, both reminding us of Jia’s indie documentary chops and signaling his personal connection with the location (near his own birthplace in China’s industrial northwest). Despite its sprawling, two-decade timeline and big budget, Ash Is Purest White is far more than a greatest hits compilation for Jia as he thankfully returns to his strengths after the transcontinental excess of Mountains May Depart.
Jia’s longtime collaborator and wife Zhao Tao stars as Qiao, a dancer who is first introduced without her small-time gangster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan) in a portent of things to come. Soon, a rival gang encroaches upon this precarious idyll, and the first of the film’s gloriously choreographed sequences proves that Bin is ineffectual without Qiao’s help. Sent to prison after helping Bin, Qiao discovers upon her release that she is alone in the world. The film’s surprising, plot-filled middle third is an acting master class by Zhao, whose mien transfixes through scenes of betrayal, revenge, self-preservation, and petty cons. She winds her way through a tour of China’s rapid development and Westernization, a host of movie-magic coincidences, and a raucous, sprawling public-wedding-feast setpiece that showcases the film’s budget as much as its fight scenes do.
Refusing to adhere to expectations and to irrelevancy, Qiao’s bootstrapping ingenuity could be a modern feminist saga. But Qiao’s rebelliousness is ultimately an ambivalent one—and so is the film’s portrayal of progress. Qiao and Bin never marry or have children, though she is a pious daughter who regularly lights incense and whose descent into the jianghu lifestyle is driven as much by concern for her father’s well-being as her relationship with Bin. When Qiao rescues a woman from a group of predatory men, it’s partly to exact her own revenge; Bin’s new girlfriend sprinkles her dialogue with casual English phrases as a sign of sophistication but also moral corruption; and a gorgeous ferry ride through the Three Gorges region also showcases the dam’s destructive effects. Depicting these contradictions amounts to both a coping mechanism in the face of societal and political forces and a furiously righteous attempt to record what is lost in service of relentless modernization.
In Ash Is Purest White, fidelity is the name of the game, but not of an individual to the state or to an ideology, nor that of a woman to a man. The highest fidelity is Jia’s to the world he represents: the film employs five different shooting formats, each carefully chosen to bolster period accuracy. In the present-day third act, Bin’s visit to a doctor is cheekily punctuated with a selfie, and the breathlessly tense final scene—a fight scene without the fight—focuses on an old comrade who mercilessly baits Bin while recording his every move on a cell phone. In this way, the extended cameos by a coterie of revered directors (the disgraced Feng Xiaogang, Zhang Yibai, Diao Yinan) sanctify the titular purity of an independent cinema.
The final sequence brings us nearly up to the present: January 1, 2018 (marking the Western, not Chinese, new year). Qiao installs a security camera on the exterior of her restaurant, before the film cuts to a surveillance-eye view of her re-entering the building. Is it the end of film, period—not just this one? Last spring, General Secretary Xi Jinping merged the Chinese film board with the Propaganda Department. This move put film censorship directly in the hands of the Communist Party, which cut Feng’s cameo from the domestic theatrical release of Ash Is Purest White, and forced Fan Bingbing, the star of his latest project, to pay a hefty fine and to self-criticize. The apparent release of authorial control and adoption of a surveillance shot style could be a way to head off or discourage specious Chinese state control. Amidst collapsing freedom of expression and under the watchful gaze of an oppressive state, it’s one final attempt at emancipatory self-determination.