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Review: ‘Ash is Purest White’ brings the story of one underworld couple, and a country’s progress, to vivid life

Zhao Tao plays a loyal lover in the Chinese gangster drama "Ash Is Purest White." (Cohen Media Group / Cohen Media Group)
Zhao Tao plays a loyal lover in the Chinese gangster drama "Ash Is Purest White." (Cohen Media Group / Cohen Media Group)
By Michael Phillips Tribune News Service

The exquisite “Ash is Purest White” owes some of its richness to the movies, particularly crime and gangster movies in various languages. The rest of it comes from the poetic eye of writer-director Jia Zhangke, who shows us what he feels about the real world as represented by contemporary China – its telling details, creased faces and panoramic visions of progress bulldozing its way into the future, at a great many people’s expense.

This is one of Zhangke’s peak achievements: pure cinema, and a story of the underworld unlike anything you’ve seen before.

For much of his career Zhangke has collaborated with the actress (and, since 2012, the director’s wife) Zhao Tao. “Ash is Purest White” hands Tao one of the very best screen opportunities. As Qiao, the clear-eyed lover of a provincial gangster played to steely perfection by Liao Fan, she makes the simple act of listening – to heartbreaking news, or to her most conflicted inner thoughts – a riveting series of micro-revelations.

Set between 2001 and 2018, Zhangke’s drama takes its narrative lead from Qiao, surrounded by variously unreliable, unscrupulous men. The early scenes are marvels of concentrated atmosphere. Qiao and her man live large in Datong, near Mongolia. The local coal industry’s on the ropes, but in their café, where men smoke and smack their mahjong tiles, Qiao’s lover, Bin, comports himself as an honorable big-shot, settling a dispute between two men over money the jiang hu way. Meaning: There’s a code of behavior and ethics to be followed.

But Bin has enemies. “Ash is Purest White” caps its first third with remarkably efficient plotting and some sharply staged violence. Here’s where it starts sounding like a ‘40s Hollywood gangster movie: After a rival gang attacks Bin, Qiao takes the fall; a few warning shots from an illegally owned firearm, and suddenly she’s in the slammer, lying to save her man from a long prison sentence.

Five years later, she’s out of prison, and goes searching for Bin, who has been mysteriously silent during that time. What she finds, and where Zhangke takes the story from there, to the present day, becomes a plaintive rumination on time and the human heart’s often misleading sense of direction.

The ferry ride Qiao takes down the Yangtze, after she’s released from prison, takes place around the time the Three Gorges Dam was being built and changing the landscape forever. The filmmaker made an entire (and truly special) film, “Still Life,” about that same region. “Ash is Purest White” concerns more than Qiao’s story, but the character – as played by Tao – is so quietly spellbinding, the movie doesn’t need much else.

On “Ash is Purest White” Zhangke worked with cinematographer Eric Gautier using a variety of formats, ranging from low-fi video to 16 and 35 millimeter film and high-definition digital. Zhangke’s previous film, “Mountains May Depart,” was a three-part saga covering 26 years and taking wilder chronological leaps into the future. The design, execution and human element of “Ash is Purest White” feels less showy and more, well, pure. The movie’s often weirdly funny, too, as when Qiao, talking to a snippy corporate factotum through a sliding glass door, stops the door from closing with her plastic water bottle.

Some films present a feast for the eye with great flourish and extravagance. This one is a different kind of feast. If there’s a director alive whose compositions breathe more easily, and move a story forward with a more stimulating variety of visual strategies, let me know.

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