REVIEW: 江湖儿女 [Jiang hu er nü] [Ash Is Purest White] [2018]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 136 minutes
    Release Date: September 21st, 2018 (China)
    Studio: Cohen Media Group
    Director(s): Zhangke Jia
    Writer(s): Zhangke Jia

Armed men tend to die first.

The genesis of Zhangke Jia‘s Jiang hu er nü [Ash is Purest White] is intriguing. After thinking about cut scenes from two of his earlier films starring now wife Tao Zhao (Unknown Pleasures and Still Life), he found himself merging her characters into one. He saw this woman having begun in the coal-mining town of Shanxi before eventually making way towards Fengjie as the county worked to flood cities for construction on the Three Gorges Dam. So this latest work becomes a sort of experiment to give this new amalgam a life of her own. He provides a name (Qiao), an existence adjacent to the region’s underworld jianghu, and a reason to find herself miles away almost a decade later before possibly returning home. This is her story.

We meet Qiao (Zhao) and her boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao) in memory first. The aspect ratio is squared and the picture quality grainy as we find them reveling with their “brothers” over mahjong, Bin clearly at the lead. It’s exactly as a gangster film opening should be with relationships fleshed out and power made apparent. So when we flash-forward with an unlabeled cut, things still make sense. Bin is the man people go to for help and as such the one expected to pay his respects when things go wrong. But where we assumed he was already this fearsome boss revered far and wide, it’s not long before we realize these characters are all playing a part. They’re known to each other, but not necessarily feared by outsiders.

Qiao’s father still resides in government housing with a job soon torn out from under him. Young up-and-coming hooligans are wreaking havoc unchecked, killing and maiming those in Bin’s circle. He talks the talk as far as stepping up to make the type of money this lifestyle is thought to provide while she wonders if it would be more beneficial to move to Xinjiang and start fresh, perhaps even settle down to make a family. They’re in love, comfortable, and hopeful for the future until an incident forces them to defend themselves and in turn get arrested. He earns one year while she’s saddled with five. More time passes silently via cuts that supply us the important moments of travel and confrontation to stay afloat within Jia’s plot.

The result is a warts-and-all look at the crime world wherein those who embrace the flash find themselves ruled by pride. So when it’s taken away, they can either lament what was squandered or evolve to recognize what mattered. Qiao did the latter—helped by her having a lot of time to think behind bars. Bin conversely languishes with the former. He sees what happened as a failure and thus he’s one too. With that comes resentment and guilt for those who passed him by and those who saved him from his shot at dying in a blaze of glory respectively. Whereas Qiao arrives in Fengjie to reclaim the life she willfully forfeited, Bin settled there to escape the shame of not being strong enough to hold on.

While their ever-changing romance is the film’s lynchpin, its ability to contrast them against each other proves more crucial than that which they are or aren’t as a unit. It’s not a throwaway line when Qiao admits to Bin she isn’t jianghu because when all is said and done, she proves more suited to that life than him. Adversity is the quickest avenue towards seeing whether you’re a gangster or if you merely play one with your friends. That’s not to diminish Bin’s formidability since he will definitely throw down with the best of them—the central fight that ultimately sends these two characters onto their diverging paths is a great example of Jia’s vision. But it’s one thing to earn fear and another to work for respect.

Maybe Bin does the latter too, but we never see it. A big part of this is that Qiao is the lead and more or less on-screen for the runtime’s entirety. As such, we need to know that Bin hasn’t worked for respect so that we can appreciate exactly what she’s fighting for. He ran away and disappeared. He was too embarrassed to prove to his “brothers” that he was still the man they knew despite any setbacks. These are realities we know simply because of his absence. When Qiao searches for him and gets the runaround from their mutual acquaintances, it becomes obvious which of the two is truly righteous enough to claim the jianghu title. She is the one working to confront her past.

It’s a somber, slow journey towards that goal when compared to the opening act’s portrayal of their invincibility. From the moment Qiao is sent to prison, Ash is Purest White screeches to a halt in order to show the emotional and psychological toll loss inflicts. The world is so much different afterwards and not just geographically or economically (mention of increased poverty and the changing social climate comes often). Who she is and her place within it have altered irrevocably too. Where she could call someone and have ten guys ready to protect her in the street six years prior, she’s now alone and desperate when a thief steals her money or when she finds herself without food. Backed into a corner, we discover who she really is.

Qiao is out there taking risks to survive. She’s conning people out of money and refusing to take “no” for an answer when it comes to ensuring Bin tell her where their relationship stands to her face. It’s a wonderful performance from Zhao as she transforms before our eyes in demeanor above all else as the years pass by. With hopes and dreams dashed, she must decide whether the optimism of leaving everything behind for Xinjiang remains or if familiarity will draw her back to Shanxi. This leads to a resonant final chapter that mirrors the frivolity of the first. It ultimately forces us to think back and realize how Qiao was always the real leader. Bin was nothing without her and perhaps that’s what scared him most.

[1] Zhao Tao as “Qiao” in ASH IS PUREST WHITE directed by Jia Zhangke
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group
[2] Liao Fan as “Bin” in ASH IS PUREST WHITE directed by Jia Zhangke
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group
[3] Zhao Tao as “Qiao” in ASH IS PUREST WHITE directed by Jia Zhangke
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

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