An Obsessive Couple’s Journey in ‘Ash is Purest White’

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CHICAGO – Obsessive love is a movie story staple, and “Ash is Purest White” puts a Chinese point-of-view on this strange phenomenon. This is a coupling in the background of organized crime and a changing China, and their success and failure is based on the events surrounding them as much as their devotion to each other.

The film is dreamy, almost surreal, as it takes place between 2001 and 2018. The lead actors portraying the couple in essence represent the emerging capitalist China, setting their sights on territory, both within the relationship and the small fiefdoms that popped up in China’s soaring economy. At some point, after a key event, the film switches into a deliberateness that slows down everything, and it becomes a narrative not of action but of searching for something that didn’t exist in the first place. In a sense, the new China is precisely that … a dream that can never exist in their culture. In essence, “upward mobility” corrupts everything and everybody.

Bin (Fan Liao) is a mob boss who has a constant target on his back. His lover is Qiao (Tao Zhao) whose devotion extends beyond just emotional support. Together, they direct their group of loyalists and operations as China begins to grow. When opposing forces corner Bin in a street fight, Qiao fires a weapon, saving his life, but has to do jail time because the gun is illegal.

Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao) in ‘Ash is Purest White’
Photo credit: Cohen Media Group

After serving her time, Qiao comes into a different world. She searches for Bin, but finally comes to the realization that he doesn’t want her anymore. Wandering aimlessly, she uses her street smarts to build another nest egg, and eventually resumes her role as den mother to some low level players. Bin comes back into her life at this point, crippled in a wheelchair after a stroke. The final chapter of their story is about to begin.

Writer/director Zhangke Jia constructs a cinematic soap opera, using striking visuals to communicate the “love story,” and defines the story through the violence of everyday survival in the organized crime setting. The main couple have a grudging respect for each other rather than overt love, and in a sense it is assessing what love means through the filter of survival. In a luckless and loveless time, what does being together mean? The title refers to volcanic ash, a pure whiteness because it has burned completely, which symbolizes the couple’s story.

The two principal actors have a stoic demeanor which is counter to romance, which makes Qiao’s obsession hard to fathom. When she finds out that a rival has taken her place during the years in prison, she is more blank than upset. What is fascinating about her, in the way she is drawn, is how she survives. When she needed to eat, she found a wedding banquet. When she had to get cash, she came up with a clever con against a rich guy. In a survival sense, she understands the game.

Qiao on the Night of the Gun in ‘Ash is Purest White’
Photo credit: Cohen Media Group

The pacing of the film is difficult. After the gun incident, the films slows down dramatically, with long and languorous musings. Director Jia goes full symbolism at this point, for once the volcanic explosion of the gun incident occurs, all that is left is the floating ash raining down in the aftermath of the situation. Like the contemplation of anything that floats, there are only small movements against the static sky. Be prepared for that analysis of “being together” in “Ash is Purest White.”

Universally, couples are couples everywhere, and the quirks and particulars of each relationship is as different as a fingerprint. If there is anything that “Ash” teaches us, it’s that the private connections between lovers can never be dismissed or explained from outside observations.

“Ash is Purest White” continued its limited release in Chicago on April 5th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi’nan Diao, Caspar Liang and Zheng Xu. Written and directed by Zhangke Jia. Not Rated. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Editor and Film Writer

© 2019 Patrick McDonald,

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