Ash is Purest White (2018)
Written & Directed by Zhangke Jia
To have a love that is so devoted, you would give up your freedom for your partner to be free is rare. Qiao has that love for Bin, her boyfriend, and the organized crime boss of rural Datong, a small industrial town in northern China. Qiao takes full advantage of her place of power, thoroughly enjoying the nightlife of Datong and making sure people know who her man is. It becomes clear there is another faction making a move, and Qiao tries to persuade Bin to leave this place and start over somewhere with more opportunity. They don’t get a chance as one night their car is surrounded by motorcyclists out to kill Bin.
Knowing that if she doesn’t act, he will be killed, Qiao emerges from the car and fires the gun Bin has given her into the air twice to scare off the attackers. This act, highly illegal in China, gets her almost a decade in prison, shipped off to a faraway facility. When she returns, Bin’s life has changed, and Qiao may have no place in it.
The reveal in act two of just how much Bin’s life has changed leaves the audience wondering what sort of film this will become. Our first act is an organized crime film, but the rest of the picture will not be a Chinese Scorsese story, but something more tragic and slow. Qiao’s old survival instincts kick in when she arrives in Central China to reunite with Bin. She learns he is hiding from her, ashamed that his life kept going while her’s was put on hold.
So, left on the streets, her money and ID stolen by a bunkmate on the ferry that brought her here, she begins a series of small scams to ensure her safety. While passing a wedding party, she poses as a schoolmate of the bride to get a meal. Later, she pretends to be the sister of a stranger’s mistress, pushing the lie that his lover has recently had a miscarriage and taking his cash as payment for medical treatment. You might suspect that Qiao will get revenge on Bin, yet she just creates situations so she can speak to him.
There is a volcano looming in the distance during scenes in Datong, dormant and sleeping. There’s a sense that it may explode at some point, but the film uses this to create a metaphor for Qiao. She always has the potential to unleash on Bin and the people who take advantage of her. But, it’s simply not worth it, she’d only end back up in prison.
On a train ride back to Datong she meets a fast-talking man who is captivating passengers with his promises of lucrative tourism jobs in his home province which are based around the UFO sightings there. Qiao confesses she’s seen a UFO once and follows him onto the next train where he appears to be profoundly moved by her sadness and tragedy, eventually admitting he is a shop owner with no tourism jobs. Qiao isn’t sad, just accepting that the promise of a better future is something she isn’t going to ever have, caught in a continuous procession of deceptive men.
There’s an ever-present sense of never being able to escape your past, your hometown. Qiao wants to leave Datong from the start of the picture and only gets that chance through imprisonment. When she tries to start over in a city with boundless economic potential, she finds it’s a place of lies, moving too fast for her in the wake of eight years behind bars. Inevitably Qiao ends up back where she started facing old men who still think they are young and powerful. There is no great Chinese promise of a brighter future for Qiao, she will never move on.