“Ash is the Purest White” is a sweeping Chinese crime saga that’s more interesting for what it shows than what it’s about.
The story is a routine mob moll melodrama, a devoted woman’s life of tests once she’s taken up with a boss in the jianghu, the Chinese underworld. The acting can feel static, the compositions formal and the camera pretty much planted in place.
But the China writer-director Zhangke Jia (“A Touch of Sin,” “Mountains May Part”) isn’t the China of legend, or even the China of travelogues. These are the cities Westerners never hear about on the news, with crumbling People’s Republic housing apartment blocs, labor strife, mining towns emptying out as the coal economy peters out, with mahjong parlors filled with chain-smoking gamblers whiling away their days with their “brothers.”
It’s the China of petty criminals, implied corruption, crooks going “legit” to land government contracts, where the complicit cops are more than happy to keep the peace when it means hunting down young gang bangers who are attacking the established gangs and their “order.”
Zhangke Jia is wrestling with his favorite subtext in this setting and this story covering the first decades of the New Millennium, the beginning of The Chinese Century.
Bin (Fan Liao) is the boss of his gang of “brothers,” the arbiter of petty disputes among the rank and file. But his longtime girlfriend, Qiao (Tao Zhao), always at his side, who is the real keeper of the flame. The daughter of a miner and labor agitator, she’s the one who proposes the toast to tradition and “brotherhood.”
Tao Zhao, the director’s wife, has a quiet ordinariness about her that is deceptive. She lets us sense Qiao’s understanding of her situation, the bargain she’s made with Bin. She can’t pick and choose which parts of this life she’ll engage with.
“For people like us,” Bin growls (in Mandarin, with English subtitles), it’s always kill or be killed.”
She’s all-in, even when he’s trying to teach her how to handle an illegal (in China) firearm.
That pistol will loom large in the film’s inciting act, a mid-city, mid-street motorcycle ambush that is about to end with Bin’s death by beating — fists, feet and shovels — when Qiao fatefully intervenes. Merely brandishing the pistol means she’s arrested. Merely adhering to the code she’s bought into — loyalty above all — means prison time.
She will be tested by fire, and as she and Bin have discussed in the shadow of a volcano, the hottest place on Earth produces the finest, whitest ash. Metaphor 101.
The performances have a TV close-up quality, a lot of nothing to see with the viewer able to read much into what the players’ faces are not betraying. Rare is the emotion given away by the leads, with only supporting players blowing up or wising off.
Zhangke Jia is most at home depicting the ritual fealty of mob life — presents given to the boss, Cohiba cigars “which don’t cause cancer,” he’s assured — and depicting China’s formal, overburdened and crumbling prison system.
A lovely bit of garnish, one of Bin’s fellow gangsters has made sponsoring a ballroom dance team his passion. That’s how the mob mate’s funeral is celebrated, outdoors in a dusty backlot, competition-dressed dancers paying tribute over his ashes.
A river journey upon Qiao’s release takes her on a ferry cruise up river through the Three Gorges in the year or so before a great dam would flood much of the countryside and lower sections of sections of cities — poorer, disenfranchised — without the locals having any say.
Jia packs a lot of travel shots amidst the melodrama of the two hour and 16 minutes of “Ash is the Purest White.” The idea isn’t to tie things up neatly or even give the viewer great satisfaction at the resolution.
As with China itself, reality is messier, satisfaction harder to come by and “justice” a purely Western concept that hasn’t caught on, the way Western autos and Western pop music and discos (Still dancing to “Y.M.C.A.”) have.
And perhaps they never will.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic gang violence
Cast: Tao Zhao, Fan Liao
Credits: Written and directed by Zhangke Jia. A Cohen Media Group release.
Running time: 2:16