“Ash is Purest White” is the latest film written and directed by Zhangke Jia (“A Touch of Sin,” 2013), and is the story of a gangster love affair in mainland China over a period of the last 17 years.
The film opens with the close-up study of a baby girl riding on a train filled with passengers all smoking cigarettes. Soon we find ourselves in a lounge filled with men smoking and gambling. It’s the club of the Jianghu gang, where righteousness is the unwritten code of survival outside the law. We quickly learn that while Qiao, played by Zhangke Jia’s wife, Tao Zhao, runs the show with fist-pounding approval on the men’s backs, Bin (Fan Liao) is top dog and settles all arguments with his code of brotherhood.
When Bin defends his rule against rival gangs and is left crawling for his life, it is Qiao who fires the shot in the air to save his life, only to spend five years in jail for it. Upon release from prison, with no money and no Bin, she crashes a wedding party for a meal, and pulls a sting operation on the groom, informing him that she is the older sister of the pregnant girlfriend he left behind, and is paid off handsomely so the wedding party can continue. Even though Bin has a new girlfriend, Qiao hunts him down for an explanation. He simply says he has changed, and indeed he has, losing all sense of self-righteousness. Out of shame he limps away, and we see her through a surveillance camera standing alone in the hallway to their den of gangsters, the only law in town.
Considered a leading figure of the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese directors that began a new movement in Chinese cinema following the Tiananmen Square protests, Zhangke Jia says “capitalist values were imported directly with capitalism.” In China there is nothing of intrinsic value that cannot be bought with money.
“We are all prisoners of the universe,” says a traveling companion on a train, who hires Qiao for love and companionship in a fictitious tourist company that has road tours to UFO sightings. Qiao lies about seeing a UFO, but soon after, a UFO flies overhead. We are left wondering if she will be captured and released from the prison of her universe. She is not. As one businessman in the Jianghu tells Bin, “You have to be humble to learn how to be strong.” A lesson of life lost on Bin. Qiao, however, knows the value of humility; she is a survivor.
As Zhangke Jia says, “Before, in Chinese society being selfless was a way of becoming self. The idea that you were sacrificing yourself for the greater social good gave one a sense of meaning and purpose. Now it’s all about money.” In a violent world where one must compete for love, the only surviving code is one of self-righteousness, no matter how wrong one can be.
Check PlazaCinema.org for listings.