Ash Is Purest White review: This gangster saga is testament to Jia Zhangke's craftsmanship
Tao Zhao turns in one of the most powerful performances of the year in Jia Zhangke’s sprawling anti-gangster melodrama, Ash Is Purest White. Had she been paired with a lesser director, Zhao would still have managed to raise the roof-beams of the film; such is the restrained ferocity of her portrayal of a woman deeply in love with an enforcer-gangster, played ably by Fan Liao. But Jia’s keen eye for endowing his work with a deeply involved social conscience and gently turning the tables on a much-maligned genre lend AIPW a lasting emotional and intellectual force.
Jia’s vision of a China prowling ahead with lesser and lesser regard for the human toll of its ambition is enmeshed skillfully into the narrative of a tender yet devastating tale of love and abandonment. This is a film that refuses to divulge its secrets casually, or all at once. By providing the audience with plenty of time to take in the immensity of its scale and narrative, it encourages them to go under the skin of the film. It gently asks them to peel the multiple layers of visual and aural metaphors, some explicit, others less so, often depending on the severity of Jia’s critique of an authoritarian government. So there are randomly scattered pop acts, tigers in cages—visual paraphernalia that plays out like a circus of distraction, often encroaching into the foreground.
AIPW is neatly divided into three periods, set between 2001 and 2017. Liao plays an enforcer who is hands in glove with the who’s who of the local politicians and builders. A beautifully crafted opening scene singles him out as a phlegmatic, strong presence and Zhao as his devoted, equally strong girlfriend, both preparing to rule a slowly growing town, together. But when a freak attack on Liao’s life ends with Zhao taking the fall for him, she is thrown into jail for five years. In the second part of the film, she returns to find herself abandoned by Liao. Pulling herself together, she proceeds to make a life for herself against all odds, but not without confronting Liao first. This confrontation makes for an immaculately calibrated scene that tilts the balance of the film. In the final part, a weakened Liao, now a pale shadow of his former self, walks into the town he left, in through the gates of an eatery run by Zhao, who takes him in again. Throughout the film, we witness the slow fall of a lovelorn couple, both ruined in different ways. But while Zhao is made stronger and stronger as she burns in the furnace, Liao is rendered weak, in effect pulling her down with him.
Zhao’s psychological beast of a performance sears right through the fabric of the film to rattle the audience again and again. Broken, bruised, rendered bloody by blow after blow, her resilient devotion to love is heartbreakingly painful to witness. It takes a cinematic craftsman of the highest order to extract the dramatic human toll of rampant development from the entrails of genre, remarkably balancing opacity and transparency, owing to an awesome clarity of vision. The last shot of the film, a surprising shift in point of view, bewildering as it was on the first viewing, left me shaken and lost in thought, mulling over its apparent mystery.
In love with a man who’s haunted by the glory of the past who’s been rendered effete and weak by fate, Zhao’s tasked with caring for him while maintaining his dignity and sheltering him from the storm of adversaries. To see them weakly attempting to reach out to each other across the gulf that separates them makes for deeply disturbing viewing. Images of them dancing to corny pop songs without a care for the world earlier on in the film haunt the audience. Jia’s uncompromising tragedy melds intimacy with the epic in reconstructing the ghosts that make the woodwork creak in the rapidly growing China. No one, not even the most powerful, will be spared the axe, he seems to say. The center will not hold without pushing everything to the edge and tearing it to shreds.
A particularly symbolic scene earlier on in the film puts the protagonists in a meadow with a volcano for a backdrop. Zhao muses over volcanic ash being the purest of all. Jia drags them both, and the willing audience, through the furnace of the film, burnt and bruised and blistered. Zhao appears to be passing the test, but only momentarily. Perhaps Jia is pointing us toward the inefficacy of the metaphor in communicating the essence of human emotions. That, and our endless search for someone to lean on, but driven by our more base instincts, only to run away from the comfort of the familiar. And over all these vicariously human acts, falls a shadow, slowly enveloping all.
Updated Date: Nov 10, 2018 11:23:36 IST