Last Hurrah for Chivalry

Jia Zhangke, Ash is Purest White, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 136 minutes.

WHEN WE FIRST ENCOUNTER ZHAO QIAO, the central character in Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White, she is perhaps a little over twenty, her face untrammeled by time or worry and framed by the most perfectly engineered bangs in Datong, the northern mining town whose streets are run by her boyfriend, Bin, a big man in the local jianghu gangs. The year is 2001, but by the time the film’s story ends, in 2018, Zhao Tao, the actress who plays Qiao, is playing nearer to her own age. At no point does Tao have recourse to actorly affectations in transforming the character from a young, wide-eyed moll to the shrewd, hardened proprietress of a mahjongg parlor—she simply is young, and then she is not, as she simply is throughout the film. The act of marking these outward changes in Qiao, and of observing her unchanging internal integrity, is at the core of the work that Tao and Jia have together made.

Ash is Purest White, like Jia’s previous Mountains May Depart (2015), uses a triptych structure to demark a story that spans decades, following an arc from invincible youthful ambition to frailty and disillusion. In the turn-of-the-millennium opening, Qiao and Bin, who is played by Black Coal, Thin Ice’s Fan Liao, seem to be dreamily costarring as mob royalty in a movie in their heads. When he puts a cigarette to his lips, cronies vie with one another to be the fastest to extend their lighter—an almost cartoonish moment in the more usually austere Jia’s filmography. They are a couple to whom respect is due, and given, as when an associate fresh from prison brings Bin a gift of cigars from Hong Kong to thank him for the help he provided on the inside. Secure in her position as both just one of the boys and something more, Qiao is savoring one of these stogies on the night when everything changes, when she and Bin are beset in a public square by a gang of young punks looking to take a cut of the action by force. Bin wades in with his fists, and is beat back with lead shovels. Seeing her man facing threat of death or fatal humiliation, Qiao steps out and, firing a warning shot from his unlicensed pistol, ends both the fight and her life as she has lived it up until now.

The report of that forbidden shot, and its implications, echo throughout the rest of Ash is Purest White, just as that same public square resurfaces repeatedly, each time with weightier significance. Qiao takes the fall for possession of an illegal weapon, and the movie picks up with her in 2006, as she emerges from behind prison walls into a world, Bin included, that has moved on without her—the loyalty he showed to his comrade on lockdown doesn’t seem to extend to this girlfriend as well. He hasn’t waited for her, ducks her when she comes looking for him in his new home near the site of the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze, and is only reunited with her at length in the film’s final section, set in 2018, after a stroke has confined him to a wheelchair, and he can duck no more.

Jia Zhangke, Ash is Purest White, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 136 minutes.

Though it may sound it, Ash is Purest White is not precisely a film given over to some great l’amour fou affair. Toward the close of the film, Bin asks Qiao “Do you hate me?” She replies with a reflective “I have no feelings for you.” And while Tao is actress enough to show us a glimmer of suppressed emotion beneath this response, her Qiao is something much more than a mooning, jilted lover. She is, as revealed to us through the course of the film, an idealist, and love only incidentally relates to her ideals, values that outlast passion, like honor and loyalty. The opening of Ash is Purest White sketches out the world that shaped her, in which a basic system of interlocking obligations and beliefs still hold together the social fabric: Bin gives face to his elder superior, Eryong, and expects face in turn; a dissembling gambler drops his lie quickly when confronted with the higher authority who needs be respected, an idol of Lord Guan; Qiao uncomplainingly goes about her filial duty to her father, an unemployed alcoholic ex-mine worker; a woman grieving the loss of her husband is reminded “Your children need you to be there for them.” Places in the pecking order, and roles, are understood, while Qiao and Bin are not just lovers but partners, as is clear in the scene where they together mete out judgement to a couple of young buck upstarts, operating in a second-nature tag-team tandem.

Jia, as he describes this world onscreen, also makes it clear that its fabric is already fraying at the edges, unravelling. Punk kids, emboldened and ambitious entrepreneurs, have begun to target their elders, and great industrial upheavals are afoot in this town that has for so long relied on the munificence of the local mines. Qiao reenters society after a span of a little over a Five-Year Plan, but on the hyper-accelerated timeline of twenty-first century China, this feels more like fifty, and once out of step with society, she never fully regains her stride. This isn’t to say she cannot adapt when necessity demands: After having her wallet snatched, she adjusts herself to this new, mercenary environment, conning philandering husbands out of their cash, though working intently toward a reunion with Bin as she does so. Their hotel room reunion, caught in one quietly bravura take that runs unbroken for nearly ten minutes, only reconfirms in its intimacy their distance from yesteryear. The confirmation that they are over brings no closure, for what Qiao mourns is not only a man but an entire way of life. She may have lost her love long ago, but she is incapable of letting go of her loyalty—and this quality that she possesses in surplus has no currency in the world into which she’s come of age.  

Jia Zhangke, Ash is Purest White, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 136 minutes.

While never reaching for the same stylistic arpeggios, in scope and subject matter Ash is Purest White is a sort of kindred work to another gangster picture steeped in nostalgia and regret, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984)—though here the regret is for a life saved rather than for a life thought lost. Jia, however, has a crime film tradition much closer to home to draw on, and cigars aren’t the only cherished import from Hong Kong to appear in his movie: Bin and his brothers are seen gathered to solemnly smoke and study a videotape of Taylor Wong’s Tragic Hero (1987), whose star, Chow Yun-fat, provided the definitive style guide for the Hong Kong Triads who these Mainland jianghu are in turn imitating, while elsewhere Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s Chow-starring The Killer (1989), “Drunk for Life,” enjoys a place of pride on the soundtrack.

Moving the Chinese crime film from hothouse Hong Kong to colder northern climes, Ash is Purest White isn’t the first time that Jia has filtered genre tropes through his own sensibility—a style shaped by cinematic high modernism, applied to a contemporary China where many citizens have been vaulted seemingly overnight from a preindustrial world to a postmodern one. His 2013 A Touch of Sin nodded to the wuxia swordplay film not only in its English-language title, a riff on that of King Hu’s 1971 A Touch of Zen, but in its depiction of contemporary criminal social outcasts as modern-day xi, or martial heroes, driven to extreme acts of purgative violence by an unjust and inhuman society. And while Ash is Purest White doesn’t move like a John Woo film—there’s nary a slow-motion white dove to be found—it is animated by the same basic human concerns that ran through the so-called “heroic bloodshed” cycle to which Tragic Hero and The Killer belonged, per Woo, a concern, rooted deep in folklore, with “the ancient Chinese qualities of chivalry (meaning self-sacrifice), friendship, loyalty and honor.”

Jia Zhangke, Ash is Purest White, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 136 minutes.

Ash is Purest White is plugged into the traditions of Hong Kong pop cinema not through a mere desire for hat-tip homage, but through a deep understanding how folklore and poplore color how people think about and envisage their lives. One of Jia’s most endearing traits as a director is his wholly uncondescending approach to pop kitsch, and his respect for the emotional outlet it can provide, as evidenced in scenes where the abandoned and rejected Qiao finds moments of respite watching a crooning street performer or singing along with a shirtless torch song balladeer. The latter is one of a few instances where the movie uses integrated documentary footage, taken years ago by Jia, in a work that prefers to reflect the passage of time through an array of digital formats, including Mini DV, HD, 2K, and 4K, as well as by the shifting technological landscape that surrounds Qiao, where flip phones give way to smartphones and banged-up old locomotives are replaced by bullet trains.   

Along with a Hong Kong of the imagination, in Ash is Purest White Jia also quite literally revisits the turf of his own previous films: Datong, in his native Shanxi Province, was likewise the setting of Unknown Pleasures (2002); while Still Life (2006) lay its scene in Fengjie, near the Three Gorges Dam, and shares with Ash is Purest White an extraterrestrial cameo. This isn’t mere navel-gazing. As far and away the most prominent public face of a Mainland Chinese narrative cinema set at odds with official, state-sponsored culture—with all of the pressures that this entails—Jia is very much an industry unto himself. Perhaps his only contemporary is Tao, who first appeared in his 2000 film Platform, and has been the most consistent human presence in his cinema since. Here, together, they display an astonishing level of artistic symbiosis, years of creative loyalty all channeled into a portrait of devotion betrayed, unrewarded, but nevertheless unbowed. When everyone else mouthed off about the values of the jianghu code, Qiao listened, and took them to heart. This is her delusional undoing, her tragedy and, finally, her glory.

Ash is Purest White opens in US theaters March 15.