By Yun-hua Chen.
Jia Zhangke’s latest, Ash is the Purest White, three years after his previous film Mountains May Depart (2015) which ambitiously spans from 1999 till futuristic 2025 and journeys from Fengyang in Shanxi Province to Perth in Australia, continues with his incessant probing of how China changes but is rather anchored to his familiar place. It traces the drastic transformation of Chinese society from 2001 to 2017 through a strong-minded woman’s love towards a small-time gangster. As Jia hints in his choice of the Chinese title “Jianghu Ernu”, literally meaning “sons and daughters in the jianghu underworld”, Jia is once again asking, with the rapid socioeconomic changes, how do we reposition ourselves in the world where jianghu is no longer the same jianghu?
The gangster Bin (played by Fan Liao, who was crowned a Berlinale Silver Bear of Best Actor for his performance in Black Coal, Thin Ice) and his mol, Qiao (played by Jia’s favorite actress since 2000 and life partner, Tao Zhao) run a small nightclub with a stage for live music and a hidden room for Mah-Jong, where local gangsters gather to gamble and socialize. Qiao’s father, working in a state-owned coal-mining factory whose pit is about to be closed and whose workers about to be transferred to Xinjiang Province to extract petroleum, takes lead in protests against corruption and nepotism of the factory management team. Meanwhile, teenage gangsters rise to challenge the established ecosystem by killing a well-respected gangster-turned-property-developer and subsequently breaking Bin’s leg. In an impressively-choreographed martial-arts scene of street fight between Bin and the teenage-usurpers, Qiao ends up taking the gun, which Bin has previously confiscated from his subordinate, to fire in the air so that Bin is not beaten to death. For possessing a gun and refusing to give Bin away, Qiao is imprisoned and released five years later to see a society and a lifestyle that she barely recognizes.
We see Jia’s home town Shanxi Province in a well-paced episodic manner tripartitely: the turn of the century, at China’s peak as the powerhouse for world growth, and the post-capitalist slowdown right now. Under Jia’s lenses, the transition is not only materialistic, such as the leap from metal hot water bottles to overabundant dispensable plastic water bottles, from slow train to high speed rail, and from phone calls on a bulky mobile phone to instant audio-visual messaging on WeChat. It also resides in the ecological transformation along the Three Gorges area across the Yangzhe River, which has been metamorphosed from a cultural heritage site and residential area into the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. More importantly, the transformation goes as deep as the sense of justice, priorities in life and moral values. In the first episode when Bin drinks from a bowl of collective alcohol-pell-mell with his gang members and regulates conflicts by presenting a statue of Lord Guan, the Chinese god of war, he lives in a time when brotherhood is celebrated, righteousness prevails, and justice is rendered – the idealistic jianghu. A couple of decades afterwards in the third episode, as a part of the society rises from rags to riches, the cut-throat world of money-craving folks leaves no more room for such values which now seem old-fashioned. Bin’s friend, nicknamed “university graduate”, and his sister Jiayen represent those who smoothly adapt themselves to the rapidly changing time. Right after the turn of the century they have already started to import cigars as well as other western products from Hong Kong. To show off their westernization and commercialization, they code-mix English such as “anyway” and “David” in colloquial Chinese.
Bin and Qiao’s two excursions up to the hill with a view of an extinct volcano in the outskirt of the city mark their own transformation with time. In the first excursion when they are both young, a long shot catches Bin in his prime despite limping forward in crutches after one leg is broken by the teenage gangster. After scanning rightwards and then leftwards between Qiao and Bin, the camera places them in a medium shot, where we see Bin taking out a gun, positioning himself behind Qiao, and holding her hand to point the gun for practice. At that time Qiao is a chirpy young woman wearing flowery and colorful clothes who claims that there is no more jianghu and jianghu is only in gangster movies, to which Bin replies, “wherever there are people, there will be jianghu.” The tone dramatically changes when they climb up the hill for the second time towards the end of the film. Both of them being weary and weathered, Qiao pushes Bin’s wheelchair upwards and walks a bit further on her own to encourage Bin to walk towards her with a stick. Now their roles are reversed; she has become his protector and instructor and she is the one sticking to her jianghu values, whereas Bin sinks into a by-hook-or-crook negative utilitarian.
Through Bin and Qiao’s respective endeavor to find their own place in the world, what Jia really wants to show in Ashes is the Purest White is the struggle of commoners. These are the people who travel in the same bus as Qiao in the opening of the film: an infant in a jean overall, a man holding a cigarette between his lips, several middle-aged men and women who are dressed in dusty overly large suit jackets. With only natural light, the camera wanders from one unknown face to another, attempting to unsettle and disorient the audience with these seemingly directionless images, until it finally finds the familiar face of Tao Zhao who leans against the bus window. The struggle of commoners is also in the faces of Qiao’s fellow prisoners in the process of being transported to a different prison, all wearing the uniform light blue jacket with tidy short hair a bit below the ear, in those faceless figures captured in a traveling long shot which scans through boats of different sizes and functions along the Yangtze River, as well as in the frontal faces of the audience who sit in the same auditorium of a variety show as Qiao in Fengjie. And, a group of middle-aged women tilt and swivel in a collective public square dance, a sequence which is cut from club-goers jumping up and down to Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” Devoid of glamour and artifice, these faces are observed closely in a documentary way and their world is a pell-mell of new and old, traditional and modern.
Carefully crafted and beautifully performed, Ashes is the Purest White is the accumulation of Jia’s previous masterpieces. Here we see the closing of state-owned factories and the demise of factory-based towns in 24 City (2008), the impact of the Three Gorges Dam in Still Life (2006), purposeless young people being unable to resist the temptation for pleasure in Unknown Pleasures (2002), and a strong woman’s path to get back on her feet after being betrayed by her beloved man in A Touch of Sin (2013) and Mountains May Depart. It is a nostalgic look back in time and in Jia’s previous self, as well as lost idealism along with the lost jianghu; when the once flamboyant Bin ends up being a bitter stroke-survivor trapped in a wheelchair, it is the passing of time that brutally kills heroism and the heroic figure. The film’s carefully-balanced malaise and censor-approved socio-realism do not break new ground, but its subtle melancholia lingers in the mind.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.