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‘Ash is Purest White’ is a masterclass in restraint

In Jia Zhangke's "Ash Is Purest White," Qiao (Zhao Tao) is led astray when she becomes involved with mafia boss Bin (courtesy of Cohen Media Group).

For a film so concerned with change and the passage of time, “Ash is Purest White” feels remarkably slow. Scenes linger. The commotion of a city scrolls by in sluggish, wide shots. Conversations stretch on in long, unedited takes. But pictures don’t get selected to compete for Cannes’ vaunted Palme d’Or by playing things by the book. “Ash is Purest White” demanded something different to fulfill its challenging task: weaving a romantic drama into a sobering examination of urban life in a rapidly developing China. Director and writer Jia Zhangke accomplishes this with a wonderfully measured restraint, spooling out “Ash”’s story in slow, deliberate scenes that eschew pace and verve. The result, pensive and poignant, is a fascinatingly-presented film that trusts its audience to follow patiently as it lingers to show the anxiety and isolation of those left behind in China’s underworld. The reward is more than worth it: “Ash is Purest White” is both a fascinating study in cinematography and a moving exploration of Chinese modernity.

That trust begins from the onset of the film, as Jia foregoes lengthy exposition to drop us straight into the turbulent life of protagonist Qiao, whose relationship with mafia boss Bin drags her into the murky underworld of the dusty mining city Datong. We’re introduced to the city’s smoky mahjong dens and the strongmen who run them with incredible efficiency in the action of a single, extended scene, as a loud dispute about a personal debt interrupts the gambling. Threats are traded. A gun is cocked. Bin swoops in to diffuse the situation with some rousing talk about brotherhood and honor. The night ends in a flashy nightclub blasting Western disco, as the gang buries the hatchet with liquor. These dynamics of brotherhood, loyalty and prestige will sustain a sweeping narrative that follows Qiao as she’s pulled deeper into the danger and intrigue of Bin’s mafia dealings. Personal betrayals, attacks from rival gangs and the long arm of the law eventually estrange her from Bin and her home, forcing Qiao to journey alone through the chaos of China’s developing cities in search of solace and reconciliation.

The effectiveness of Jia’s scenes and “Ash”’s story as a whole owes much to Jia’s excellent direction. Resisting the urge to cut for sizzle or heighten moments of tension with cutaways and closeups, Jia’s camera lingers in long, unedited takes and wades through scenes with a remarkable slowness. Without cuts to propel the film’s conversations and confrontations, Jia mires us in the same tension and uncertainty that assaults Qiao; anxious silences dominate “Ash is Purest White”’s sequences just as powerfully as words. A slower pace also helps Jia home in on the beats of Qiao’s uncertainty and growth in her isolation: In one particularly satisfying sequence, we watch Qiao devise a plan to con cash from the patrons of a fancy restaurant, fail, pause and then finally succeed upon resolving to try for a second attempt.

This attention to detail makes Qiao, played with a tough grittiness by seasoned actress Zhao Tao, a compelling protagonist: ruthless and canny as she grifts her way past China’s underbelly of thieves, gangsters and creeps while affectingly pained in the alienation and betrayal she endures in the process. Perhaps less satisfying is her relationship with Bin — while his cold ambivalence towards her aptly begins Qiao’s tragic journey of solitude, it makes for a more tenuous romance that, at times, distracts from the more engaging scenes of Qiao forging her path alone.

Also effective is Jia’s rendering of the rapidly changing locations across China that Qiao stumbles through: A momentous sense of time and scale accompanies Qiao’s journey, which spans from 2001 to the present day. Again, the restraint in Jia’s direction shines through. As Qiao ventures from the rugged alleyways of Datong to the bustle of the newly urbanized Hubei province, Jia pulls back to capture long, sobering wide shots of the crowds and chaos that surround her. We’re reminded too, in quick beats of dialogue and visual signage, of the uncertainties that accompany such change: Datong’s miners strike as the price of coal drops, and Qiao travels by ferry past riverside villages soon to be flooded by a newly constructed dam. The years fly by for us as they do for Qiao: Skips forward in time happen innocuously, without announcement, and are only quietly evidenced by little details like the phone Qiao uses (at first, a blocky Nokia handset but by the film’s close a glossy iPhone) and the installation of CCTV cameras on a Datong street corner.

It’s this moderation, a willingness to impart the film’s emotional weight in subtlety and slowness, that makes “Ash is Purest White” a uniquely compelling film. There’s plenty of that emotional weight to go around, from Qiao’s journey of betrayal and solitude to the wider anxieties of China’s development in the new millennium — but a lesser director could have easily routinized such a story in a bluntly delivered crime drama. Jia Zhangke’s choices in direction and cinematography instead embed “Ash”’s pathos in the dizzying scale of a wide shot or the anxiety of a pause in an intimate conversation that goes on for just too long. Sometimes, less really is more.

Contact Daniel Wu at dwu21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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