It’s fair to say that the earlier films of Jia Zhang-ke could be described as slow-paced, focusing much more on a lack of movement like an observational documentary, typified by 2006’s “Still Life”. But since 2013’s “A Touch of Sin” there has been a touch more action in his work, with storylines moved along at a pace starting to focus on the “moving” element of moving pictures. His most recent feature, “Ash is the Purest White” continues this trend of slightly more active cinema, though is still true to his earlier roots.
Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao) are a couple holding minor celebrity in their small town. Bin, a member of the jianghu, the criminal underworld of nomadic characters, is something of a big fish in a small pond, though commands respect from both those above and below him. Qiao is something of a gangster’s moll, always by his side, but never directly involved in crime. Until, suffering and injury in a random street attack, Bin offers a gun to Qiao. This is when their lives cross paths.
Bin’s random attack was perhaps the start of younger gangs wanting a piece of his action. Bin and Qiao’s car is attacked by a bike gang, with the street altercation seeing Bin, while stronger, grossly outnumbered. Fearing the worst, Qiao reaches for the gun, steps out of the car and fires a warning shot. She has made her first step into the underworld.
Confessing to owning the gun, Qiao is sentenced to five years in prison; Bin for a single year for his part. On her release, however, the four years head start have seen Bin move on and start a new life as a legitimate businessman. Tracking him down, Qiao learns how she has been abandoned with nothing to her name. But prison brought with it a new confidence, and Qiao cons and tricks her way to money and mild adventure, enjoying a freedom before returning to her former hometown.
Bin, having failed at his new life, has seen alcoholism cause a stroke. Lost, he returns home; Qiao taking him in now she runs the local haunts. Some are happy to see the old face, other less so, and Bin feels lost, invalid and without any power. Under the same mountain view where he first handed Qiao a gun, she reminds him that he is no longer jianghu.
The Chinese title “Jianghu Ernu”, translating to “Sons and Daughters of the Jianghu” (as Tony Rayns, credited with the English subtitles, wrote in Sight and Sound) perhaps gives a better idea as to the content of the film. A man and a woman grow within the realms of the jianghu, but in different directions, with Bin trying to find new money, while Qiao is a growing female confidence within this world. Though ironically the pair are far from brother and sister in this world: when they are in it, they comment how the other is not of their world, and so wouldn’t understand.
Covering a number of years, it feels as though it covers a number of elements in Jia’s previous films: The impact of the Three Gorges Damn echoes “Still Life”; the lost criminality of “Xiao Wu” and “Unknown Pleasures”; and the emerging violence of “A Touch of Sin”. Elements of wandering seen throughout his films is also present with Qiao’s encounter with a “UFO hunter” emphasising a sense of being lost and far away from home – if home does indeed exist – as well as a close encounter with some science fiction in the direction.
Eric Gautier’s cinematography is simple, but effective alongside Jia’s ever-slow pace, as we observe more than experience. And while there is more story to tell than is typical with Jia, he doesn’t move it along any faster than he chooses to, ensuring we take everything in.
The two leads have a good chemistry in the highs and lows of their relationship in a film which sees them have numerous scenes of extended dialogue. Tao Zhao takes glee in her new found role of petty criminal, talking her way into free meals, rides and cash from easily-tricked men. Her face evolves from the smiling sidekick to the gangster noir of Bin, to stoic prisoner, to cocky trickster before settling for the hardened grin of a life in the criminal underworld. Fan Liao likewise switches from cool to sap to angry lowlife comfortably, forever the opposite of Qiao.
The film comes full circle, under the mountain where Bin first handed Qiao a gun. With this act he lead her into the jianghu. Back there years later, Bin now disabled in recovery from his stroke, she encourages him to walk by himself towards her, only to find that he will get up and walk away from her all by himself. Bin is not tied by location of relationships, and so perhaps she has brought him back into the underworld at a time when she may have being willing to climb out of it with him.