Ash Is Purest White

Ash is Purest White is a relatively simple story of Qiao (Tao Zhao) and her true love, Bin (Fan Liao). It is a simple story that’s stretched well over the two-hour mark. Some may find this story of Qiao’s steadfast love beautiful and tragic, but I just found it a very, very long sad story.

Bin is the head of the “Jianghu” underworld mob and a powerful and influential leader of a small coal-mining region of northwest China. Qiao is his love and stands by Bin through thick and thin and serves as his confidant.

The film opens with Qiao managing a local Mah-Jong parlor and enters the backroom, where Bin is settling a loan dispute between two men as a good mafia don would. But times are changing, and the economy in this modern mining town is spiraling downward with massive layoffs and the possible closing of the mine.

“Her love and devotion for Bin compels her to take full blame for the crime to protect him…”

Many of the citizens blame the economic woes on a corrupt political system which points straight to Bin’s “brotherhood.” One of Bin’s city contacts Eryong, a real estate developer, is murdered as the violence and tension begin to grow. Soon, Bin and Qiao are confronted by an angry mob that begins to lay a savage beat down on Bin. To save Bin’s life, Qiao pulls out Bin’s gun from her purse and fires a warning shot into the air. This stops the attack, but also attracts the police.

Qiao is immediately arrested and sent to prison for gun possession. Her love and devotion for Bin compels her to take full blame for the crime to protect Bin as the actual owner of the gun. Qiao is sent to hard labor in a wintery prison. During her five-year prison sentence, a free Bin never visits her.

Upon her release, Qiao returns home only to find Bin has a new girlfriend, the sister of his business partner. In spite of everything that’s happened, Qiao’s heart will always belong to Bin as she waits out the certain demise that relationship.

At over two hours long, Ash Is Purest White is about the steadfast love a single woman has for a single man. Sound a little pathetic? Qiao’s unwavering devotion to Bin is a bit pathetic…really quite tragic. I suppose if this was an American film, political correctness will force Qiao to realize she is not defined by any man. But alas that doesn’t happen, not even close. This is a tragic love story with tragedy falling on only one character, our protagonist Qiao. Everyone else, for the most part, lives fulfilling lives.

“…a tragic love story with tragedy falling on only one character…everyone else, for the most part, lives fulfilling lives.”

As a film, Ash Is Purest White quite beautifully depicts the landscapes of China including the small mining village and the urban city. The cast is terrific and Tao Zhao as Qiao is riveting in her subtle performance as the insufferable girlfriend.

I remember sitting at my grandparent’s home as a child for an entire day watching Chinese soap operas. Its themes were similar in that nothing good happens to anyone and character lives continually spin out of control. All this to explain that running characters through the emotional wringer is a common theme in contemporary Chinese storytelling and it is no different here.

On the “bright side,” Zhangke Jia’s Ash Is Purest White is a cautionary tale for a country struggling over the new role of women and feminism in the world. The problem is the two-hour runtime feels like a four-hour film, which is not unusual in Chinese dramas. Its pace is unbearably slow at times and considering we’re watching a woman essentially wasting seventeen good years of her life chasing a man, tragic is the best way to describe the whole experience.

Ash Is Purest White (2019) Written and directed by Zhangke Jia. Starring Tao Zhao, Fan Liao.

6.5 out of 10 stars

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