Ash is Purest White (dir. Jia Zhangke)
Jia Zhangke makes his return to the festival, as his last film, Mountains May Depart, screened at AFI in 2015. Like Mountains May Depart, Ash is Purest White is a story in three acts, spread across a lengthy sprawl of time and deals with the socio-political landscape of Modern China.
The first act of the film is a stylized and off-kilter gangster drama, with an extended dance club scene set to YMCA and two hilarious moments of impromptu ballroom dancing in ill-fitting scenarios. Zhangke’s experimentation with genre here resembles his fascinating work in A Touch of Sin. Guns, alcohol, startling bursts of violence and stylized dialogue are just a few of the touchstones in the first segment of Ash is Purest White. As with all of his films, however, Zhangke is not content to stay working in a single mode.
Taking place years later, the second act is the film’s most moving section, zeroing in on themes of isolation and lost love that begin to define these characters. A changing world brings a changing tone. The off-kilter stylization gives way to a tender and melancholic heart. From here, Zhangke continues to take momentary leaps towards transcendence (including a wondrously thought-provoking bridge between the second and third acts) but the crushing weight of the world ultimately drags each and every one of his characters back down to earth.
While it wasn’t 188 minutes like The Wild Pear Tree, nor did it have the budget of something like The Favourite or On the Basis of Sex, no other film at AFI this year presented this much movie. Ash is Purest White manages to be one of the funniest, saddest, and, remarkably most furious films of the festival. Jia Zhangke is as political as moviemakers get, and Ash is Purest White is another charged takedown of a country’s institutions that force its citizens to the margins. —Ryan Williams