Love and determination are a dynamic combination, and no more so than in Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke’s slow-burn gangster drama “Ash Is Purest White.”
Spanning from 2001 to 2018, Jia’s story starts with two people in love. One is Qiao (played by Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao), who works in a dance club and oversees the high-stakes mah jongg games in the back room. Her boyfriend, Bin (Liao Fan), is at one of those tables. He’s a mid-level gangster in their small but growing city, Datong.
Qiao and Bin live on the line between devotion and violence. One night, while dancing in the club (to Village People’s “YMCA”), a handgun falls from Bin’s shirt and hits the floor. He quickly hides it again, before anyone sees it. Owning a handgun is a major crime in China, though every good gangster has one.
Sometime later, while Qiao and Bin are riding in a fancy car through downtown, some street toughs on motorbikes force them to pull over. The boys beat Bin severely, and would likely kill him if Qiao doesn’t pull out Bin’s pistol and shoots it into the air, which forces the kids back. The police arrive soon, and Qiao tells them the gun is hers. Qiao ends up getting five years in prison for that moment, more than Bin got for fighting.
What the rest of “Ash Is Purest White” covers is what happens when Qiao gets out of prison and tries to reunite with Bin. It’s in these moments where Jia turns the movie’s full attention to Qiao, who will pull every con-artist trick she can to make some cash and get closer to Bin.
The result is a fiery, yet carefully restrained, performance by Zhao, who gives Qiao a dark, intense drive that serves her well as she maintains her “jiangha,” or street gangster, ferocity through nearly two decades of setbacks. She’s like the dormant volcano that inspires the movie’s title, calm on the surface but ready to blow with righteous, purifying fire if pressured.
‘Ash Is Purest White’
Opened March 15 in select cities; opens Friday, May 10, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably R for language and violence. Running time: 136 minutes; in Chinese with subtitles.