Ash Is Purest White starts as a crackerjack, Bonnie and Clyde-style crime movie, then slows down into something more akin to Antonioni’s L’Avventura. It eventually ends as a mesmerizing mood piece about personal alienation and national dislocation. That’s quite a shift, but writer-director Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart) finesses it effortlessly.
Zhao Tao stars as Qiao, girlfriend to a mid-level gangster named Bin (Liao Fan). Running a gambling den and partying at nightclubs (to Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”), the pair live it up until Bin is ambushed in his car by a rival gang of thugs. The ensuing fight is a thrilling, single-take action sequence, punctuated by Qiao coming to Bin’s rescue by firing a gun in the air. This lands her in prison for a number of years; upon her release, she tries to track down Bin, hoping to pick up where they left off.
Zhao’s performance downshifts in perfect sync with the movie. Fearless at the film’s start, sporting bright colors and flashy shoes, Qiao emerges from prison wearing beige attire and an understandably dour demeanor. She still has her underground spirit—pulling scams when she needs quick cash—but mostly she seems adrift in a China that has shifted under her feet.
Jia emphasizes this by alternating among various film formats—from grainy mobile phone footage to widescreen compositions, the latter of which are especially gorgeous during a middle sequence shot in the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River. When Qiao finally finds Bin, they’re often filmed against staircases, walls, vast housing complexes, and even within a cavernous, empty stadium. Like Antonioni’s tortured characters, they remain separated by some existential force, reunited in body but stubbornly kept apart in spirit.