Blu-ray Review: Ash is Purest White (2018)

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If Michelangelo Antonioni had directed a Chinese gangster movie, it might've looked something like Jia Zhangke's Ash is Purest White, in which a romance between a jianghu underworld boss and his loyal girlfriend plays out against the desolate backdrop of 7,700 km of mainland China over a seventeen year period.

Conceived by the filmmaker after looking at deleted scenes from two of his previous pictures which featured his wife and filmic muse Zhao Tao, Zhangke blended together the unconditional love of Zhao's Unknown Pleasures character and the complexity of her Still Life alter ego to create a whole new woman he envisioned coming from his coal mining hometown in northwestern China.

Fittingly, for a film that was crafted from two others, Ash wears its cinematic influences proudly and none more so than through its prominent use of Sally Yeh's theme song from John Woo's 1989 Hong Kong crime classic, The Killer.

Whereas Woo's film focused on a hitman's devotion to Yeh's beautiful singer, whom he accidentally blinded during a job, Ash turns the premise inside out as we watch the protective Qiao (a phenomenal Zhao) risk everything for her love, even after their relationship has ended.

So committed to the handsome, charismatic jianghu boss Bin (Liao Fan) that she fires a gun in public in order to save his life when they're attacked by a rival gang, Qiao emerges from jail half a decade later determined to pick things up exactly where they left off.

With architectural metaphors a la Antonioni, Zhangke tells a second story about the way that time changes not only people but their overall environment. Whether in brief scenes that highlight the collapse of rural towns or by way of a loudspeaker on a ship in the middle of the Three Gorges where we're told that everything we're looking at will be underwater in the same amount of time that Qiao was behind bars, Zhangke cleverly links the plight of his leads to their homeland.

Knowing this, with his usual cinematographer unavailable, Zhangke found the ideal candidate to step in via Eric Gautier, whose breathtaking work with Olivier Assayas, Alain Resnais, Sean Penn, Ang Lee, and especially Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries perfectly illustrates his talent for making the most of the environment. Captured with five different cameras to bring different textures and moods to its seventeen year span from 2001 to 2018, Ash is as much a bittersweet reverie for the land as well as a love gone by and Gautier's visuals convey as much meaning as Zhangke's sparse dialogue throughout.

Anchoring the film whenever it starts to meander, Zhao's mesmerizing chemistry with Liao brings their scenes heartbreakingly to life but none more so than when she realizes once again that she has to be strong for them both and face that their relationship is over . . . even if we know that that's just what they're telling themselves before the film echoes The Killer once again.

As beautiful as it is soulful, best paired not only with Woo but also Antonioni's L'eclisse and Wenders' Paris, Texas, in Zhangke's enigmatic existential romance, two lovers journey towards and away from one another out of the underworld on an unforgettable seventeen year opus home.

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