Ash Is Purest White (4 stars)

Ash Is Purest White

credit: 2018 Xstream Pictures (Beijing)

Jia Zhangke's poignant crime drama features an impressive performance from his wife Zhao Tao

Chinese director Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin) returns to the crime genre for Ash Is Purest White, his latest exploration of contemporary China. His focus is the jianghu. Originally used in wuxia literature to denote a way of life associated with martial arts, the word came to mean a sort of underground brotherhood and, latterly, organised crime.

Beginning in 2001, we find Zhao Qiao (Zhao Tao) in love with a provincial mobster named Guo Bin (Liao Fan, of Black Coal, Thin Ice fame). A robust presence, Qiao is also fiercely loyal. When Bin is attacked on the street by a bunch of motorbike-riding thugs, it's Qiao who comes to the rescue, firing shots into the air as the camera circles her in a show-stopping sequence. Refusing to incriminate her boyfriend, she's arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for possessing an illegal firearm.

The story picks up at the end of her jail term, as Qiao gets word that her low-life lover has moved on. She sets out to track him down, partly to re-establish her own place in the world, with the time jump allowing Jia to examine the changing face of China. As Qiao sails down the Yangtze, we take in the Three Gorges Dam – also featured in A Touch of Sin and the director's 2006 film Still Life – a seismic but highly controversial hydroelectric project which flooded archaeological and cultural sites, causing ecological change and population displacement.

Throughout a story spanning almost 18 years, Zhao – Jia's off-screen partner and a regular in his films – is rock-solid, playing a born survivor who boasts street-smarts in spades. If the final act is perhaps too ponderous, it's typical of Jia: this is no ordinary gangster film but one that's filled with poignancy and longing.

Selected release from Fri 26 Apr.

Ash Is Purest White

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • China / France / Japan
  • 2h 16min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Zhangke Jia
  • Cast: Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi'nan Diao

Zhao Qiao (Zhao Tao) is in love with mobster Guo Bin (Liao Fan) and is sentenced to prison after rescuing him from thugs; on her release, she goes to track him down. A poignant gangster story spanning almost 18 years, with a somewhat ponderous final act but a rock solid performance from Zhao.