“Ash Is Purest White,” the English title of Jia Zhangke’s exquisite and ferocious new movie, references a conversation between a woman, Qiao (Zhao Tao), and her boyfriend, Bin (Liao Fan), as they survey an extinct volcano on the horizon. It’s 2001, more than a thousand years after the last recorded eruptions near Datong, a coal-rich city in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi. Reflecting on the ash still dusting the nearby mountaintop, Qiao marvels, “Anything that burns at high temperatures has been made pure.”
The notion of purity — another word for it might be loyalty — courses through this beautiful, expansive and deeply melancholy drama, in which Qiao will endure her own intense trial by fire. Jia, a master of the long arc, follows the character from 2001 to 2018, a period of sweeping social, political and technological change that he measures in intimate, incremental human terms. Over those 17 years, Qiao will lose everything except her indelible understanding of who she is. She will uphold and question the ties that bind her to Bin, and which bind both of them to this land and its timeworn traditions.
Bin, locally known as “Brother Bin,” is a small-time mobster who runs a mahjong parlor and nightclub. Qiao is a coal miner’s daughter who straddles their two worlds with ease; she’s a formidable partner to Bin, overseeing a few of his rackets and taking no guff from his cohorts. Both of them follow the way of the jianghu, a word that means “rivers and lakes” but figuratively describes a vast community of people dwelling beyond the margins of mainstream Chinese society. Theirs is a rural underworld governed by strict honor codes, spiritual beliefs and occasional eruptions of violence.
That violence has yielded a rich repository of stories, cornerstones of Chinese popular culture that include wuxia martial-arts novels and gangster movies like “Tragic Hero,” a 1980 Chow Yun-fat vehicle that we see Bin and his crew watching early on. It’s a lightly self-reflexive gesture (you might be reminded of Tony Soprano and his love of “The Godfather”), but elsewhere, Jia pulls us into a deeper understanding of jianghu life and its sacred myths and totems, as when Bin compels one of his underlings to confess his debts before a statue of the ancient warrior Guan Yu.
Bin, played with brooding restraint by Liao, pays noisy lip service to this boisterously masculine culture. In a hypnotic early sequence, we are encouraged to lose ourselves in the ebb and flow of Bin’s nightclub crowd as they jam to the Village People’s “YMCA” — the infectious beat is a sly nod to the West’s encroaching influence. But although Bin mostly enjoys his life of crime — the gambling, the dancing, the boozy camaraderie and his own power to intimidate — his ambitions seem oddly muted, and he tends to keep both his power and his temper in check. That might sound prudent at first, but in “Ash Is Purest White,” the weapons come out quickly and without warning.
Bin will soon be caught dangerously off-guard, targeted by a rival gang that has little regard for jianghu diplomacy. Jia unleashes a thrillingly tense action sequence that finds the two lovers ambushed on a public street, a violent confrontation that ends only when Qiao raises a gun and fires it into the air. She will pay the price for her intervention; refusing to admit that the gun belongs to Bin, she is charged with possession of an illegal firearm and sent to prison for five years. No one, least of all the country she once knew, is waiting for her when she gets out.
As usual, Jia builds scenes with a highly observant camera that doesn’t seem to be dramatizing the action so much as conducting panoramic surveillance, gliding gently with the actors in long, fluid takes. (This marks the director’s first collaboration with French cinematographer Eric Gautier, who shot “Into the Wild” and “The Motorcycle Diaries” and conveys the passage of time with a subtle mix of digital formats, including some opening video footage that Jia shot in 2001.)
But although Jia’s use of screen space and temporal duration are clearly steeped in the conventions of Asian and European art cinema, there’s nothing distancing about his technique. Despite its elegiac tone and stark social realism, its loose three-act structure and leisurely narrative flow, “Ash Is Purest White” has some of the grit, energy and emotional generosity of a 1940s Hollywood melodrama. You are pulled in almost immediately by the beauty of the characterizations, the specificity of the milieu and the depth of feeling that courses beneath every exchange.
Most of all, you are carried along by Qiao as she makes her uncertain way across China’s interior, traveling down the Yangtze River and eventually winding up back in Datong. Years pass, landscapes morph and entire ways of life seem to vanish, leaving only whispers of memory and regret in their wake. Eventually, too, Bin will re-enter the picture and drift back into Qiao’s good graces, if not her heart, and Liao is heartbreaking as a once-powerful man brought low by poverty, abandonment and physical decay.
But Qiao’s journey, though full of sadness and disillusionment, also pulses with humor and life. Zhao, a radiant screen presence, infuses her natural emotional gravity with the tough-talking poise of a Barbara Stanwyck heroine. A true spiritual descendant of the jianghu, Qiao has nothing but her exceedingly sharp wits to support her, and her plucky desperation — whether she’s hungrily crashing a wedding feast or turning a plastic water bottle into an improbably effective weapon — occasions some of the movie’s most unexpectedly entertaining scenes.
It will shock no one familiar with Jia’s work to hear that Zhao, his longtime on-screen collaborator (and off-screen wife), has given another superb performance. But they may be more surprised by the degree to which “Ash Is Purest White” feels like a career summation for both director and leading lady. Qiao herself grew naturally out of Zhao’s characters in “Unknown Pleasures” (2002) and “Still Life” (2006); the growing obsolescence of the coal-mining industry nods in the direction of Jia’s 2000 triumph, “Platform”; and the melodramatic triptych structure echoes that of “Mountains May Depart” (2015).
In the past, the director’s weakness for sampling his own body of work has smacked of auteurial self-indulgence, but here every reference grows organically out of the material. Certainly no knowledge of Jia’s prior films is needed to appreciate two intensely poignant scenes — you might call one of them a brief encounter and the other a close one — that directly invoke “Still Life,” his elegiac snapshot of the Three Gorges Dam project and its monumental human and environmental consequences. In that movie, Jia suggested that life in 21st century China could be as surreal as science fiction. In “Ash Is Purest White,” he reminds us that it can also be a sublime romantic tragedy.
“Ash Is Purest White,” with Zhao Tao, Liao Fan. Written and directed by Jia Zhangke. 135 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Opens April 5 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. The Los Angeles Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.