All films are, to some degree, expressions of an artist’s politics, but few contemporary directors have more actively and astutely reckoned with the political in their work than Jia Zhangke, who continues to capture a rapidly developing China in all its growing pains and irreparable fractures. What separates Jia from his peers is the personal nature of his storytelling. In his films, marginalized men and women proceed with their private lives while acting as validating witnesses to sweeping societal changes that will naturally alter the ways they relate to one another. Unlike the work of other ostensibly political auteurs, Jia’s films are not tirades (words are so often beside the point in these stories, despite their literary breadth), but beautifully cinematic realizations of a phrase whose ubiquity tends to drown out its complexity: The personal is political. The very best of Jia’s multi-chapter narratives depict conflicts that could have occurred only between the characters involved; they feel less like products of a writer’s calculated planning and more like natural progressions of singular, modern lives.
When I think back to Jia’s 2006 film Still Life, it is not the damning critique of the havoc-wreaking Three Gorges Dam that I immediately recall, but the images of an abandoned man and woman drifting through the city in search of the spouses who have deserted them, as well as the instances in which their separate quests often subside, instead giving way to capricious moments of awe and contemplation at the transmogrifying urban landscape that envelops them. Similarly, the director’s 2013 A Touch of Sin, based on four notorious crime stories ripped from his country’s headlines, works as both narrative cinema and social critique because all of its grisly incidents are centered around well-drawn characters, from an unraveling mineworker to an exploited massage parlor receptionist. Their on-screen interpreters allow us to feel the heavy ramifications of the violence they wage and encounter. No matter the scenario, Jia’s characters always emerge as individuals, never emblems.
This is true as ever in the director’s latest undertaking, Ash Is Purest White, a sweeping and profoundly stirring romantic epic set in gangland China that chronicles a broken couple’s circuitous evolution from the dawn of the new millennium up until the present-day. Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and crucial, ongoing collaborator, plays Qiao, a young woman from a declining coal-mining town and the loyal girlfriend of Bin (Liao Fan), a respected, low-level gangster in the jianghu, China’s criminal underworld, and the owner of a mahjong parlor frequented by his associates. Early on in the film, Qiao is quickly established as a forthright, self-assured presence in this world: we see her slinking around and roughhousing in the parlor’s backroom with Bin’s cronies, and, later, ordering these same men to drink a cup of spiked punch before gulping one down alongside them. She is often the only woman in a room full of self-styled mafiosi, less of a kept woman than Bin’s unfailingly faithful partner in matters of business, brotherhood, and the heart.
As we come to learn during the film’s first chapter, several of Bin’s colleagues in the jianghu are being systematically knocked off by a new generation of upstarts looking to usurp these aging kingpins. In one scene, Bin takes Qiao to the countryside, where he teaches her how to shoot with an illegal gun, an inactive volcano stretching out across the landscape behind them, its purifying cinders giving the film its cryptic title. “Armed men tend to die first,” Bin stoically tells his beloved, a cautionary insight that becomes something like a self-fulfilling prophecy when the couple are cornered in their car one night by a group of young punks, who proceed to attack Bin’s driver and then Bin himself within an inch of their lives. As the unarmed but outnumbering assailants pound Bin’s head against the hood of his car, Qiao grabs his gun, exits the vehicle, and fires a series of warning shots into the air, putting a halt to the violence and saving her boyfriend’s life, while unthinkingly sacrificing her own. Caught by the authorities with an illegal firearm and refusing to rat on its owner, Qiao is sent to prison for five years. Upon her release, she is startled to find that her country is in a capitalistic turnaround and, more pressingly, the love of her life has abandoned her without so much as an explanation.
The sequence of Bin’s assault, made indelible by the stomach-churning crunch of knuckles meeting head, may be the most graphically brutal segment in Ash Is Purest White, but the most violent deed committed in the film is Bin’s swift, off-screen dismissal of the woman who surrendered her freedom to keep him alive. This savage yet spineless severance reminds us, as Martin Scorsese did in The Age of Innocence, in which a cunning pregnancy announcement ends a man’s besotted pursuit of his wife’s cousin, that there is no act more violent than a lovelorn heart being torn asunder. Like Scorsese in Innocence mode, Jia displays a masterful knack for burning, tacit intimacy. In a crucial scene between Qiao and Bin, set in a gloomy hotel room on a rainy night and largely played out in a single, expertly-choreographed shot, Jia focuses intently on gestures, expressions, and moments of stillness: a pair of eyes darting away from a pitying gaze; the nervous lighting of a cigarette; a back quivering with long-suppressed sobs.
Qiao and Bin’s problems might not have amounted to a hill of beans were it not for the engrossing and empathic efforts of Jia’s two lead actors. Upon the film’s premiere at Cannes this past May, critics lavished praise on Zhao’s pivotal turn, with numerous authorities positing her as the easy frontrunner for the festival’s Best Actress prize. She went home empty-handed — as did Jia, egregiously so — but it makes sense why so many were quick to rally behind the performance. In the very best role of her career to date, Zhao excels as only an actor who has been given complete attention and freedom by her director can. Whether playing the infatuated gangster’s moll, the resigned prisoner drained of spirit, the hardened and scrounging ex-convict, or the small-time, seen-it-all maven that Qiao eventually becomes, Zhao is never less than convincing. She is a self-abandoning virtuoso who foregrounds the emotional authenticity of her characters, eschewing the ostentatious posturing of most cinematic chameleons. As Bin, Liao is less central than Zhao but equally masterful, effortlessly transforming himself from a sexy, stone-faced hood to the neurotic, curmudgeonly invalid of the film’s final act.
The inner suffering that Jia describes in Ash Is Purest White can feel as heavy as a stone, but his scene-building is peppered with grim humor, from a straight-faced ballroom dance routine during a gangster’s wake to a series of hilarious scams that find a desperate Qiao brilliantly preying on male stupidity and lechery. Later on, Jia evokes the surreality of life in contemporary China by leading his female protagonist into a close encounter of the first kind, one that briefly places his film within the realm of science fiction and recalls a similar instance of genre-splicing from Still Life.
Jia gambles and occasionally retreads dramatic terrain like this throughout the piece, confident enough in the basic movements of his story to test an audience’s patience for tonal slips and suspension of disbelief. His directorial touch can still be slightly cold at times; the film’s final shot, capturing Qiao in yet another moment of supreme devastation, is blunt enough to verge on the clinical. But Jia’s storytelling and his deep-feeling, ever-resourceful actors radiate a compassion for these characters that gets the blood running in nearly every frame of Ash Is Purest White, which tells the narrative of a nation as the tale of two souls.
Ash Is Purest White, directed by Jia Zhangke, is currently screening in select theaters.