About two-thirds of the way into Ash Is Purest White, the latest triumph by Chinese master Jia Zhang-ke, the heroine, Qiao (Zhao Tao, Jia’s regular leading lady), meets a strange man on a train heading north from the central province of Hubei. Qiao was recently released from prison after serving a five-year term; after tracking down her boyfriend, who didn’t bother to meet her upon her release, she discovered that he had taken up with another woman while Qiao was in jail. Qiao intends to return to her hometown of Datong, though she’s not sure what she’ll do there. Feeling rudderless, she listens to the strange man with rapt attention, as if looking for a sign for what to do with her life. He says he’s headed to an area near the border with Inner Mongolia, where he plans to set up a tourism company that will take people to places where others have claimed to see UFOs. Qiao lies and claims that she’s seen a flying saucer herself, perhaps to earn the stranger’s trust. He concludes the spiel about his prospective business by saying, “The bottom line is, we’re all prisoners of the universe.”
Qiao ditches her plans and joins the strange man (the film never reveals his name), boarding a train at the next station for Urumqi. This unexpected development—which makes one feel as if the narrative could now go anywhere—is one of the strongest expressions to date in Jia’s work of the feeling of displacement, the unifying theme of the writer- director’s formidable filmography. Jia’s characters are regularly displaced, whether by the powers of history (as in Platform, his saga of the rise of individualist culture in the 1980s), globalization (as in The World, his look at multinational workers at a Beijing theme park), government (as in Still Life, which took place in Fengjie before national agencies would flood the city to make way for the Three Gorges Dam), or corruption (as in A Touch of Sin, his anthology film about Chinese social ills). In this passage of Ash Is Purest White, a sense of displacement overwhelms the film entirely, suggesting that Jia can no longer direct the course of his own story. Few movies convey rootlessness so palpably.
Ash spans a period of roughly 17 years, and one of the more compelling things about the film is how you can never predict when Jia will flash forward in time. It’s one of those movies (like Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together or Kent Jones’s forthcoming Diane) in which time exists as an autonomous force; neither the characters nor even the filmmaker can do much about it. Ironically this sense of feeling adrift in time makes the characters feel chronically stuck—”prisoners of the universe” is as good a term for it as any—and their awareness of their entrapment gives Ash its tragic heft. The film is above all a sad one, following two people as they gradually lose control over their lives. One could read their story as an allegory about how China’s market-driven society, with its absence of a social safety net, denies citizens a sense of security. Yet the film also succeeds on a purely dramatic level, as Jia crafts complex characters with rich emotional lives who are capable of surprising you with their actions.
As in many tragedies, the principal characters of Ash are happy when the story begins. The film opens in 2001, when Qiao is the pampered girlfriend of a gangster named Guo Bin (Liao Fan). Bin’s crime family is thriving, and the “brothers” throw around money with heedless pleasure (that is, when they have to spend it—the family wields so much power in their community that people frequently offer to provide them with services for free). Jia presents their lives seductively. Working with the great French cinematographer Eric Gautier, he keeps the camera moving almost constantly, as if eager to take in as much of their activity as possible, and lights many of the early scenes under a romantic neon green. One can get absorbed in the confidence with which Qiao and Bin go through their daily lives (the way Qiao takes Bin’s cigarette to inhale a drag off it is a sight to behold), and indeed the characters seem absorbed in their own cool themselves. Qiao is apathetic when she hears reports that local miners are getting laid off and that many workers are being displaced to another city to learn to drill for oil. She also looks down on her father for trying to expose the corruption of the village leader. Qiao is so wrapped up in being a gangster’s moll that she disregards what’s going on around her— unfortunately for her, she will come to pay for her apathy.
Soon a rising crime syndicate starts to stake out turf in Bin’s region, killing his boss and sending armed thugs to attack Bin and his brothers. Just when things seem to be going poorly for Bin and Qiao, they get even worse. One night a group of men armed with blunt objects stop Bin and Qiao’s car, pull Bin out, and try to beat him to death. Qiao, having been taught to fire a gun a few scenes earlier, steps out, fires Bin’s weapon in the air, and chases the assailants away. In the next scene, Qiao is in handcuffs, being interrogated by police. She refuses to admit that the gun was Bin’s, effectively taking the rap for his possession of a weapon. Jia then cuts abruptly to Qiao walking in a prison yard, the lighting now cool and bluish to signal a shift to a more somber emotional register. Jia reduces the heroine’s five-year sentence to just a few scenes, then shuttles the film forward to the next major passage, when the newly released Qiao goes to Fengjie to look for Bin, who got out of jail four years earlier.
Qiao’s misadventures in Fengjie deliberately recall the events of Jia’s Still Life, which was made around the time these scenes take place. As in the earlier film, Zhao Tao plays an emotionally vulnerable woman looking to reconnect with a missing lover; what’s different is that her character here has fewer resources at her disposal to guide her journey. A grifter steals her wallet on her way to find Bin, and her quest leads her to the knowledge that her old boyfriend has left the criminal underworld and has found a new girlfriend in the white-collar sector. Qiao relies on her old confidence and ingenuity to scam some men out of money and get in touch with Bin, but her efforts leave her unhappy. Jia stages the old lovers’ reunion in one of the longest single takes of Ash Is Purest White, in a lonely hotel room that conveys the characters’ emotional distance from one another. (Jia and Gautier hearken back to the earlier scenes by lighting the room with neon-green light, which stands out after the yellow palette of the other Fengjie-set scenes.)
The reunion signals another shift in tone, this time to melodrama. The remaining third of Ash trades in heightened emotions, not only when Qiao makes the bold decision to take off with the strange man she meets on the train, but when she reunites with Bin once more in 2017. Their relationship, now based in enmity and distrust, feels like something out of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, as the two characters, both broken by the vicissitudes of an unjust economic system, view one another as memories of better times and thus as causes for resentment. What registers most strongly, however, is how much both characters have changed since the start of the film. Viewed now under cold, clear light, Qiao and Bin are visibly older. One notices their wrinkles and faded hair, and even their body language is markedly different. The two leads (but especially Zhao, who’s incredible throughout) manage these physical changes expertly, making sure not to let them overwhelm the headstrong confidence that defined their characters at the start of the film. The way these two cling to their identities, in spite of how fate has tossed them about, is poignant, pathetic, and ultimately heartbreaking. v