54th Chicago Int’l Film Fest #5: “Ash Is Purest White” (China)

“Ash Is Purest White” (China)
Directed by Zhangke Jia

Zhangke Jia’s “Ash Is the Purest White” is almost a great film – certainly a giant step above the two melodramatic features of his I’ve seen, “Mountains May Depart” and “Still Life”, which is the better of the two. “Ash” is a gorgeous and epic tale about love and sacrifice on the fringes of Chinese urban culture, during the same period that the old Chinese economy gives way to the new – just as it begins its insidious creep in to village/city behavior, morays and skyline. The script…up until the end…is sparse, yet full of emotion. The photography makes a bleak world look even bleaker, but in a beautiful way (think “Hell Or High Water”)…so much so, that it practically becomes its own character, especially in the last third of the film.

But ninety percent of why you see this film is for the performance of Tao Zhao, Zhangke Jia’s muse, wife and the best thing about his pictures. Here she plays a much more three dimensional character than she has in the past. Imbuing a life put on pause for years, her every expression is one of wonder, heartbreak and determination. Less successful is the performance of her fated counterpart and small time hoodlum, played by Liao Fan. Absolutely brilliant in 2014’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice”, here he is less powerful, certainly not able to keep up with the depth of humanity shown by Ms. Zhao. I believe much of it has to do with the script…as, obviously, the director wrote the film as a vehicle for her. Nonetheless, he gives just enough to allow her strength to shine through.

One cannot write about this film, however, without mentioning the brilliant photography of Eric Gautier. Known for his work on “Into the Wild” and “Motorcycle Diaries”, here he effectively stays away from interfering with the natural light and color of each environment. Which, in turn, allows the framing and location of each shot to seduce us – bringing us deeper and deeper in to this world. This is a beautifully restrained work of cinematic visual art. You may think that’s overstating it…but I don’t think so. What I saw was brilliant.

Finally, long time composer, Giong Lim, has written a terrific score, serving the film expertly. It is filled with themes and restrained flourishes that help keep the film from ever swerving in to the melodrama lane.

Interestingly, the more I write about this film, the stronger it becomes in my memory. So why not great, then? Alas, for me, the film ends with a shrug…almost as if the director couldn’t find a suitable ending so he just…stopped. And in a way that flies against all that’s come before. As a result, the journey through the film’s many long silences goes unrewarded. When compared to all the good, that may seem like nitpicking, but that disappointment has lingered in my mind.

But, hey, it was one of the “Best of the Fest” winners, so I can only say your mileage may vary. It is most definitely worth seeking out for all the reasons I laid out above, but if I’m doing my job here, I just can’t ignore the too-pat ending.


(no English subtitled trailer, but you’ll get the idea…)

Written on 10/22/2018

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