PFF: Ash Is Purest White, The Angel
Ash Is Purest White (dir. Jia Zhang Ke)
Jia Zhang Ke is known as the godfather of Chinese indie cinema, and this is the very latest of his works. In Ash Is Purest White, Zhao (Zhao Tao) is the girlfriend of Brother Bin (Liao Fan), a bigtime gangster in the northern Chinese city of Datong. Her days are spent perusing the local Mahjong games and holding her own with the aging crooks, who seem more like grandfathers than hardened, threatening criminals. It's 2001, and though it's already the 21st Century, it still feels like ancient history. While it's hard to tell, the film stock is grainier and more rough, like the kind that might have been more readily available in China back then–calling to mind something like Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Zhao and Bin are in love, with Zhao being the only woman we meet who seems like Bin's equal. She isn't afraid to tell her father to his face to give up his dreams of fighting back against the big mining corporation looking to take his job westward to the cheaper province of Xinjiang. She is always the smartest and most responsible person in any scene- except for when she chooses to discharge an illegal firearm, as a threat to save Bin's life in the midst of a terrifying street brawl. In extremely gun-strict China, that means a severe penalty, and Zhao goes to prison for five years.
Speaking of Richard Linklater, the rest of the film takes place over many years, leading us up to 2018, loosely marked by changes in technology and convenient date announcements on the radio. A lot changes, of course- for Zhao and Bin, but mostly for China itself. The transition happening in the background is as much the story as is the couple's, the rapid pace of modernization reflecting the sudden groundless nature of their lives together. Zhao's post prison journey takes her across various modern China landmarks like the Three Gorges Dam or a train to the political landmine of Xinjiang province. At the beginning of the movie, there is a lawless, fearless way in which Zhao and Bin rule their little town. By the end, they are more or less back where they started, but shells of what they once were, having been no match after all for the unrelenting pace of the new world.
The Angel (dir. Luis Ortega)
There is an undeniable fun, though sadistic, streak to this Pedro Almodovar produced true crime biopic. Set in 1971, The Angel follows teeny bopper baby faced psychopath Carlitos on his journey to becoming one of the most iconic criminals in the history of Argentina. We meet him first as a teenager, robbing the house of a family while they're out during the day. It seems to be all fun and games. It doesn't take long before Carlitos meets Ramon, a dashing but troubled older boy at his school. At first the two seem destined to become mortal enemies- but soon are literal partners in crime. Ramon's dad is fresh out of prison and a seasoned criminal, and they both end up following Carlitos' lead to go and rob a gun store. Carlitos is an effective thief, although he isn't very good at working with a team. He tends to go ahead and do things the way he thinks they should be done, never waiting for the consensus to arrive. Step by step, Carlitos escalates the nature of his criminality, until his fate is sealed. By the end of his story, he has killed more people than Charles Manson.
Director Luis Ortega clearly takes more than a few notes from Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, turning this origin story into a sort of Argentinian Mean Streets by way of Natural Born Killers. Yet with its modern day retro vibe, true life mythologizing, as well as the queer undertones that eventually rise to the surface, it feels just as much like a long episode of Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story. If this were ever remade in America (and it shouldn't be), I imagine Darren Criss could do for the role what he did for Murphy in this last season of the show.
Even though it could stand to lose 20 or 30 minutes, this is undeniably a fun time at the movies- and an absolutely massive hit in its home country of Argentina. Americans who frequent the art house theatre will recognize the faces of actors like Cecilia Roth (All About My Mother)and Luis Gnecco (Neruda). It also features a serious breakout performance by Lorenzo Ferro as Carlitos, who graces every scene of the movie with his playful brand of careless evil. There is something for everyone in The Angel.
The Angel is playing today (Friday October 26) at 4:20 at the Ritz Five. Tickets and details here.