'Ash Is Purest White' is Purest Gold.
Cinema76 are thrilled that Zhangke Jia’s Ash Is Purest White has received an additional week on Philly screens! Now playing at the Ritz at the Bourse, Ash is the elegiac and fraught romantic odyssey of Qiao (Zhao Tao) and Bin (Liao Fan), told across three different spans of time between 2001 and 2017. It is better to know nothing of what transpires, better to be unsuspecting of any anecdotal beats in what is truly a fluid, spontaneous, paced and spacious experience. Rather than betray that potential, I would rather discuss its effects, qualities and moods which both brood and levitate, ground and transcend as one woman refuses to be crushed by the density of life, or ripper apart by its vacuum. Jia is masterful in making unspecific emotions and motivations his primary elements through the use of space, framing, silence and patience whilst revealing so much about the everyday in 21st Century China.
One must credit the ever constant visage in Ash, which communicates so much of these unspecific (or rather, un-pontificated upon, un-psychologized) yet palpable emotions, Zhao Tao (a veteran of Jia’s feature career). There has never been a face quite like her’s in cinema before, a set of eyes like her’s that are so dark, full of calculation, full of feeling, vitality, watchfulness, interiority. Her’s is a seismic energy of which she has incredible control and which we feel in our bones. Qiao’s younger whimsy and spontaneity at the beginning of Ash are infectious, mesmerizing, later her metabolism of longing has its own gravitational pull, her will throughout is a force, and her humanness is somehow rendered extreme through her mannerisms, decisions and drive. We experience so much of her in the space created by her silences, where her eyes speak a coded expression. The emotional complexity of Ash is so subterranean, so held within the hearts of tight-lipped Bin and Qiao, as to almost be unseen if you have more conventional expectations. Longing is expressed in such subtlety as to be atmospheric, meteorological, and in this way Ash must be watched with all the senses so as to experience the changes in pressure, shifts in power.
Ash, as with Still Life (2011), sees its human beings carry their very personal dramas, weaving fine melancholic threads of themselves throughout wide, changing, apocalyptically tinged landscapes in mainland China. Socioeconomic forces are constituent to that landscape and to the flow and displacement of human beings. Not mere periphery, they are part of the miasma, the terrain, the medium in which everyone floats or flounders.
At the outset of Ash we given intimate access to small-town triad, ushered by Qiao from the exuberant concert hall of a Datong City club, through the back door to the mahjong parlor thick with cigarette smoke and terse but familial exchanges between brothers. Thus Jia presents us with a dichotomy from the outset, and with it ideas of tradition, secrecy, intimacy, loyalty and cost. Ash’s “triad” is not the sadistic degenerate triad of Hong Kong action cinema, but of the real world, shown here at the changing of the guard between the old and the unsanctimonious power-hungry youth willing to strike without warning, to chip away at tradition with lead pipes. This is reflected in the depiction of the shift in China’s fuel economy from fossil to hydro and nuclear as experienced by the more isolated mining city of Datong with an entrenched aging population. Jia presents further dichotomy throughout, visually, circumstantially, texturally, environmentally, etc and this reinforces the pervasive state of uncertainty, fragmentation and survivalism in an incredibly stratified and disparate China looming under the then-impending cataclysm of the three gorges dam (which has since submerge entire towns, displacing 1.2 million people from rural populations into more urban areas without the requisite opportunity for work or acclimatization).
One of the ways Jia expresses this kind of disproportion or fragmentation in film language occurs subtly throughout Ash, but is most salient at the very beginning, in which he executes a clean but daring variation in frame shape, grades of digital, eventually moving to film and then to high grade HD. What is the effect of these shifts but to complement their complex subjects, the texture of what is being filmed, what is sensed but not seen. As cinematographer Eric Gautier explained more specifically in his interview for AFCinema “we filmed the opening of the film in 1,33:1 format, and then in 1,85:1 format, in different definitions so that we could splice them together with the texture of those images. To accompany the stories that grow more powerful, we first shot in Mini DV, then in HD, then in 2K, to finally arrive at 4K in the kung-fu scene that ends the first part. The colours become stronger and more aggressive to remain faithful to that disco era. The main part [taking place five years later] was shot in 35mm. Our idea was to recreate something that would be visually calmer. This is the battle of a courageous woman, alone, in pursuit of justice. We shot the last part of this film in digital 5-6K, it was highly contrasted, with less colour, and everything is colder.” (Eric Gautier)
Jia is known for his incredibly judicious use of unexpected imagery, often constituting one or two shots containing something breathtaking and unlikely amidst a flow of ostenibly grounded realities. The effect of these is difficult to describe, but it insinuates that what we have seen is but a microcosm, and sets in motion the idea of a much larger scale. But it also ties in with the constellation of metaphorical imagery or actions strewn throughout. A more overt artfulness doesn’t seem out of place given Jia’s aptitude for visual language.
Jia does not draw strict conclusions about the direction of Chinese society but rather shows pulsing, complex flawed people existing with in its convulsive changes. Thus with the smallness of the people set against the grandness of the landscapes and the representative architectures of that change, a nuclear power plant nestled in hills takes on a kind of mythic presentation. Films of this nature, films which are more oblique than not and refuse to cajole with simple moralities, films which are wise enough not to answer every question, perhaps bold enough to pose everything as a question, show everything action as instinct… these types of films excite the imagination in a way that can be inexhaustibly revisited upon. This is the appeal of Jia, and Ash may be his masterpiece.