Starring: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Feng Xiaogang
Director: Jia Zhangke
Running Time: 135 mins
Ash Is Purest White is a Chinese film about a woman whose life becomes inexorably connected to crime bosses and gangsters as she falls in love over the course of 17 turbulent years.
An impressively tender story of a lifetime, Ash Is Purest White is without a doubt an intimate watch, following the trials of a woman as she navigates a tumultuous period in her life, set against the backdrop of an unstoppably changing society. However, while the film offers up intrigue from a social perspective, it’s an underwhelming watch when it comes to emotion, missing the mark on delivering the epic, moving drama that comes with the story of a lifetime.
But let’s start on the plus side, with the fact that Ash Is Purest White is an undoubtedly striking and intimate drama. As is customary from director Jia Zhangke, the film takes a patient and minimalistic approach to its story, choosing to let its surroundings tell the tale rather than leave it up to more simple and direct exposition.
Also, with a strong performance from Zhao Tao in the lead role, the film’s emotional depth is clear from the start, as it combines one woman’s deep-seated personal turmoil with the ever-changing landscape and society that surrounds her into a captivating drama that cleverly parallels instability and change on a small and large scale.
On the one hand, it’s a gritty, down-to-earth drama that looks deep into elements of the criminal underworld in modern China, yet on the other, that tender and intimate emotion gives the film a more elegant, reflective tone. And while both of those narrative elements are captivating from the start, they really don’t gel well together over the course of the film, unfortunately undermining what could have been a thoroughly moving drama.
The gritty crime is clear throughout, albeit shallower than Zhao’s tale of emotional woe, so it’s evident that the film’s eggs are squarely in the latter side of the basket, attempting to craft a touching, tragic story of a lifetime that winds through the years against a historical backdrop of major social change.
It’s the sort of premise that has supported legendary epics like Gone With The Wind and Titanic, and while there’s certainly no denying the insight Ash Is Purest White gives into a rapidly changing China through the first two decades of the 21st Century, the film just doesn’t have that sense of moving epic which could have really lent it striking emotion.
Again, Jia’s films don’t give in lightly to melodrama, so Hollywood levels of epic are of course a fantasy here, but for a film with such a long time period in its story and such dramatic change on both a personal and social level, I just didn’t get that feeling of an immense, irrevocable transformation that the film really wants to get across.
Ash Is Purest White is a gorgeous, elegant piece of work, and is an undeniably intimate and insightful drama throughout, but it really misses the mark when it comes to delivering what could have been immensely moving and epic emotion, ultimately proving an underwhelming watch over the course of two unfortunately frustrating hours, and that’s why I’m giving it a 6.7 overall.