ash is purest white

review by ren o’hare

Zhao Tao as Qiao in  Ash Is Purest White.

Zhao Tao as Qiao in Ash Is Purest White.

 Ash is Purest White, directed by Jia Zhangke, is a Chinese film that follows the life of Qiao (Zhao Tao) from her twenties to her old age, and her relationship to Bin, a man who plays a key role in the jianghu-criminal underworld. The sweeping time frame depicts the changing landscape and social order of Chinese society, be they technological changes or social ones. Qiao’s hair is used as a signifier of the passage of time, as her face remains unchanged throughout the film.

Qiao never fails to love Bin, though she resists all attempts at being a part of the jianghu culture which he exemplifies. It is significant then that by the end of the film Bin has rejected jianghu culture, whereas Qiao is active in it, and now identifies outwardly with it. Although her first experiences with it are a result of Bin’s influence, her inclusion in the culture is one that she chooses for herself. An interesting balance is struck, as Qiao is presented as an independent, intelligent woman, which isn’t compromised by her love for Bin.  A man can be important to her without it defining her character, even if the action follows their relationship. Power dynamics are consistently in flux throughout Ash Is Purest White, making Qiao’s wanting Bin an autonomous pursuit.

There is a power presented in the unseen. The implied, behind closed doors that the audience does not have the privilege of viewing.

Qiao’s introduction makes this autonomy evident from the start. She is introduced as another face on a crowded bus, the camera landing on her as if by chance. It creates the impression that this film could have followed any other person’s life story, but that it is chance that Qiao’s story is being told, which adds to the fly-on-the-wall feel to the filming. The camera follows her as she goes to meet Bin, where she playfully hits on the men with whom he is gambling. She is often the only woman in company, especially at the start of the film. Though her power in this instance is dependent on her relationship with Bin, she exercises it in her own way.

For all of Qiao and Bin’s love affair, we never see her and Bin kiss, let alone have sex. They dance together, fully clothed, and she only moves closer to his body as a means of distraction. There is a power presented in the unseen. The implied, behind closed doors that the audience does not have the privilege of viewing. The one time we see them in a hotel room, is a room with three beds as they sit opposite each other as Bin tries to tell her that he has a new girlfriend. Bin comes in and out of her life, and though Qiao will always help him, he will always leave her.

The relentlessness of her love and his despair are made all the more emphatic at the finale: they catch up to current technology and Bin aptly sends her a voice note to tell her that he has left. There is a torturous quality to it, as she can replay his words “I’ve left” an endless amount of times. Her love for him is never explained and it’s often hard to understand why she does, but this is Qiao’s story, and we are mere observers. It is not for us to feel as though we would do things differently.

Ash Is Purest White screens all this week at the Irish Film Institute.