New York Film Festival Review: “Ash is Purest White”

Following the New York Film Festival screening of Jia Zhang-Ke’s “Ash is Purest White,” I have spent a lot of time contemplating exactly what the title means. There is a discussion in the movie between Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend, local mobster Bin (Liao Fan), in front of a volcano where the specific issue is brought up and talk of volcanoes burning things, but I was still left with the question of how it specifically applies to this movie.

“Ash is Purest White” takes us from 2001 to the present-day and mainly follows Qiao as she goes from mobster’s girlfriend to jail to becoming a mobster herself. So, is the phrase then about how Qiao’s life keeps burning down, allowing herself to build it back up from a pure base?  That might be right. Certainly, we get to watch her go on an absolutely fascinating journey in this film.

I wrote “mobster’s girlfriend” in the previous paragraph, and while that is technically accurate, it is also clear at the outset of the film that Qiao is a powerful force in her own right. Yes, she may decide to exude her power for silly things (like an extended trip in the middle of the night just to get steamed dumplings), but she is also quite clearly learning the lay of the land. She is a smart, sometimes kind, person. She wants to help her father and for Bin to stay out of trouble. She wants to build a life with this man. Her feelings may change later, but her wits never leave her, nor does her desire for some sort of control of her life.

Maybe the concept of ash as the purest white deals with the vast changes China is undergoing during the period. Certainly we hear of the Three Gorges Dam, amongst other things, and people in the film are constantly talking about moving to different places, to where the work is.  There is a definite sense of building from the ground up with that. “Ash is Purest White” doesn’t really dwell on the larger forces, but everything that happens to Qiao is influenced by those forces. They are inescapable in the China presented.

There is also a distinct possibility that the phrase has to do with the burning down of relationships. Perhaps, we only become who we truly are, we only hit our purest form, when we’ve been destroyed by a relationship. It doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship either. Qiao is burned by hers, but Bin is burned by his relationship to the mob as a whole. Is Bin more Bin after he suffers setbacks?  That is within the realm of possibility.

Or, perhaps, it is something else entirely. I am in no way certain that any of my suggestions are correct, or that some combination of them is accurate either. It may certainly be any of another handful of options (some of which I could offer), or none of them.  It may not mean anything beyond the discussion in front of the volcano.

“Ash is Purest White” does not offer up easy answers. Instead it is a complex portrait of this woman, Qiao, and her movement into adulthood. She is forced to adjust her outlook more than once in the film, and somehow finds the strength to keep going.

It is beautiful and at times hard to watch, and certainly feels every bit of its long running time. It can also be exceptionally funny (particularly in the respect shown to Bin when he is at the height of his power). Like it’s main character, “Ash is Purest White” is not any one thing and it is more powerful for that.

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photo credit: Cohen Media Group

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