In an industrial city in China, a young dancer named Qiao falls in love with a mobster named Bin. When a fight breaks out between rival gangs, Qiao uses a gun to protect Bin and is sent to prison for five years.
Initial release: March 15, 2019 (USA)
Director: Jia Zhangke
Language: Standard Chinese
Mandarin: jiānghú érnǚ
Nominations: Palme d’Or, Cannes Best Actress Award,
Film synopsis :
Set in China’s underworld, this tale of love and betrayal follows a dancer who fired a gun to protect her mobster boyfriend during a fight. On release from prison 5 years later, she sets out to find him.
|Directed by||Jia Zhangke|
|Written by||Jia Zhangke|
Jia Zhang-ke was never going to make a conventional jianghu underworld movie, and even if genre elements and hard-edged character are woven into Ash Is Purest White, this typically unhurried, long-span drama is very much of a piece with the Chinese auteur’s contemplative body of work. Starting in 2001 and ending on a melancholy New Year’s Eve that ushers in 2018, the film provides a transfixing leading role for Jia’s wife and indispensable muse Zhao Tao. She plays a woman from a dying coal-mining town in love with a local mobster, their complicated relationship unfolding against the backdrop of a country changing at a dizzying pace.
The evolution of contemporary China, of course, has always been Jia’s central theme as tradition has made way for modernity, bringing both losses and gains, while Western influences and technology have pierced cultural insularity. That canvas is more casually observed here than in some of the director’s earlier films, many of which find direct echoes – the surreal UFO element of Still Life; The three-part structure of Mountains May Depart – in a discursive drama that should please amateurs of Jia’s distinctive work though perhaps contains too many cryptic detours for wider exposure.
The film opens with digital video footage shot in 2001 in Jia’s northwest home province of Shanxi, showing a baby girl in USA dungarees unsmilingly surveying a busload of chain-smoking miners. At the same time, the swelling score blends traditional themes with modern electronic sounds and a touch of ceremonial drumming. This is the new China, or at least it was at the start of the 21st century.
Zhao seems to have stepped right out of her role in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures to play Qiao, a local beauty who takes no crap from the men that frequent the gambling den in the back of a nightclub dominated by the presence of her boyfriend Guo Bin (Liao Fan from Berlin festival winner Black Coal, Thin Ice). While everyone else is busy sucking up to Bin, Qiao is a woman who refuses to be intimidated by the male environment; she greets Bin with a sharp but affectionate bite on the shoulder and gives playful thumps to the regulars in a scene that instantly establishes the character as not worth decorative prop.
It’s Qiao, not Bin, who leads to celebratory toast to “the brotherhood,” and it’s the spouse of the time-honored jianghu codes of loyalty and righteousness that will outlast the convictions of her partner.
Qiao confidently straddles the divide between traditional values and the less marginalized status of the modern Chinese woman. She shows loving concern for her aging father, who rails drunkenly against threats to mineworker job security, but turns spiky with anyone lacking respect for Bin. And while she struts her stuff in a fun formation routine to The Village People’s “YMCA” (in Mountains, it was the Pet Shop Boys cover of “Go West”), she deems ballroom dancing “too Western” for her taste. But that and animal documentaries are the pet fixes of Bin’s senior associate, a crooked property developer who disappears way too soon at the hands of a rival gang.
When Bin is targeted by a group of young thugs on motorcycles – a violent action set piece that is easily the most exhilarating sequence – Qiao saves him from being beaten to death by firing warning shots from the Chekhovian gun prominently featured in earlier scenes. Her refusal to incriminate her boyfriend as the illegal weapon’s owner gets her a five-year prison sentence.
The movie’s midsection then shifts upon Qiao’s release in 2006 to the Three Gorges area as she sails down the Yangtze River looking at villages destined to disappear underwater in a planned hydroelectric dam project. Again, evidence of a vanishing China. No doubt feeling guilty about his failure to visit his in prison, Bin blocks his calls and sends other people to convey the news that he’s moved on. But Qiao wants to hear it from his lips.
In the meantime, she gets robbed of her cash and ID card, but in a wryly funny series of scenes, she makes use of skills she picked up around the prison yard to get back on her feet, starting by crashing a wedding to get a meal . The funniest of her scams involves spotting likely philanderers and bilking them for cash during family festivities at a banquet hall. The tone then shifts from amusing to mournful when she finally gets to confront Bin, in an exquisite extended scene that’s all the more affecting for its stillness and quiet.
The final section jumps ahead almost to the present day, with Qiao returned to Shanxi running to gambling house of her own, to survivor and yet an eternal outsider in this strange new world. Bin’s greatly reduced circumstances send him back to him, but while she claims to feel nothing for him, her humanity renders her unable to derive pleasure from his misfortunes. The wrap-up is somewhat protracted and seems poised to end more than once, but as always with Jia’s films, I have packs such soulfulness into the conclusion that any digressions can be forgiven.
This latest feature is Jia’s first shot by regular cinematographer Yu Lik Wai. Noted French d.p. Eric Gautier steps in with assurance, fluidly integrating footage from different generation DV cameras that allow the visual textures to change with the passing of the years. Gautier has a sharp eye for bold splashes of scorching color, but the look of the film is generally composed, almost understated, lending gorgeous scope to the occasional panoramic shots of landscapes or architecture.
The performances of the two leads are riveting. Liao initially projects a cool authority but is warm and at times almost deferential with Qiao, suggesting an understanding between the two that renders thoughts of marriage irrelevant. Even later, when experience has soured Bin, there’s a molten core beneath his abrasive manner.
And Zhao virtually assembles a mini-retrospective of her roles for Jia, referencing many of her earlier characters in ways both subtle and direct, while bringing inscrutable grit that quietly evokes the tough broads of 1940s Hollywood. Their partnership is one of the great husband-and-wife collaborations of contemporary world cinema.