A "gangster epic," some call this film. But more than that it's a love story, heavy on the disillusionment and survival and light on the romance. Epic in feel it nonetheless is, with its panoramic vision of survival and transformation in 21st-century China. It starts in 2001 and ends somewhere near today, where people are compulsively filming each other with their smart phones. Riveting, strangely reminiscent at times of Wong Kar-wai and clearly referencing some of Jia's earlier films, especially Unknown Pleasures and Still Life (and his first foray back into gangster territory since A Touch of Sin). There are also homages to John Woo. This is a reconsideration of the romantic heroine of those two films and its two parts are set in their respective settings, the towns of Datong and Fengjie. Organic and intense yet calm, Ash shows a master filmmaker at the top of his powers.
At the center and nearly always on screen is Jia's muse and wife Zhao Tao as Zhao Qiao, owner of a little bar (with Mahjong) where she falls for a local gangster with an air of authority, Bin (Liao Fan, of Diao Linan's neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice). We don't see him doing much gangstering, but there is violence, off-screen and on. Bin talks recurrently about being Jianghu, and for the non-sinologist that seems to mean, maybe, trouble with moral values (see Maggie Lee's more informed Variety review for specifics). It sometimes may mean panache, sprezzatura; other times, duty and resignation. Anyway Bin is a provincial Datong gangster, a big fish in a small pond whose many "brothers" clearly show him much respect at the little mahjong club.
In the first scene Bin takes out a pistol, and Qiao handles it. We hear of a businessman, probably shady, but without known enemies, being murdered after a sauna by young toughs. Violence on screen is sudden: quickly two similar aspiring young tough guys attack Bin with a metal pipe and badly damage a leg. He lets thems off easy when they're identified and brought to him. (Turns out they hit the wrong man. Beginners' bad luck.) Later, Bin, looking posh, is riding with Qiao in a chauffeured car and the violence ramps up. He jumps out of his car to counter-attack a crowd of thugs in a brutal and physically specific street battle where at first he is winning, then very much not, and she steps out and saves his life with that pistol. They both go to jail. He gets out years sooner, but Qiao is released he isn't at the prison gate to meet her. She begins an odyssey in search of him.
This man and woman are more completely at the center than the figures in Jia's 2007 Still Life but this new film refers to the same great upheavals, particularly the decline of a mine industry and the displacement of 1.4 million people for the Three Gorges dam. There are several train trips that provide a sense of the dizzying shifts in population, industry, business that are the China of this period. In Jia as maybe with any great filmmaker genres don't mean anything. If this is a muted gangster tale as well as a disillusioned romance it's also a haunting vision of socioeconomic upheaval. Disco seems to have come late to China: there's an intense, rousing sequence of a massive crowd dancing to the Village People's "YMCA." There is a strong thread of humor and one is the snappy dance duo who appear here later turning up with sublime absurdity to perform at a gangster elder's funeral.
All that is prelude, though essential. The part that counts is Qiao's trip to Fengjie where she's heard Bin is, and she has his number in her cell but he's not answering. Like a picaresque hero she loses everything on a boat ride but uses clever scams and deceptions - why didn't we know she had them in her? - to restore funds and force Bin, who is dodging her, to explain himself. In this most compelling and personal section Qiao, as Maggie Lee puts it, "takes charge of her life with the desperation and resourcefulness that make her an icon of the Chinese can-do spirit." .Later both she and Bin are transformed and there are more train rides, one with a mesmerizing charlatan touting his travel or tour agency, he hasn't decided what but he's seen aliens. Qiao hooks up with him for a little while. Then she and Bin are together, for longer. But nothing lasts. The sense of personal emotional saga and richness of texture could not be better.
Important in the success of this masterful film is the sometimes fatalistic score, and the European team of dp Eric Gautier, who make the transitions from DV (in Academy ratio) to Digibeta, HD video, film and Redweapon cameras seamless and suggestive.
Ash Is Purest White /Pinyin: jianghu ernu ("Sons and daughters of Jianghu"), 137 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes including Munich, Jerusalem, Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Busan, Mill Valley, London, recut for Toronto. It was screened for this review at the New York Film Festival, 10 Oct. 2018. MK2 is the producer.