Jia Zhangke’s belter of a film is part crime epic, part woman-seeks-justice flick, part state of the nation address. It takes the staples of the gangster flick — the mobster’s moll, gang rivalries, violent shoot outs — as a jumping off point for both a granular character study of a woman’s resolve, and a macro portrait of China at the turn of the century where modernity is quickly outstripping tradition. Either way, it’s a riveting picture driven by a fantastic performance by Zhao Tao as a wronged woman whose laser focus makes Kill Bill’s The Bride look lackadaisical in comparison.
Ambitiously, Ash Is Purest White pitches its story over an eighteen-year timeframe. It starts in 2001. Qiao (Tao) is the no-nonsense girlfriend of mobster on the rise Bin (Liao). Taking no crap from his gangster buddies, she is at once a traditional Chinese girl who cares for her father but also brazenly struts her stuff to Village People’s ‘YMCA’. When Bin is targeted by a rival gang in the film’s best action set-piece, she saves him from certain death by firing a pistol in the air. When she refuses to incriminate the boyfriend as the gun’s illegal owner, she is handed a five-year sentence.
Tao Zhao blows through the movie like Joan Crawford.
Here the film moves into its most riveting passage. We pick up Qiao coming out of prisoned, ghosted by Bin, and on a mission to find him. Mugged for her money and ID card, she embarks on a series of scams and set-pieces that rely solely on her wits, be it gatecrashing a wedding for a meal or scamming cheating men in the most inventive way possible (“I’m her sister — she’s had a miscarriage.”). When she catches up with Bin, it doesn’t go down the way you think.
The final section time-jumps to almost the present day, with Qiao back in her home town running a gambling den, but it is a less involving stretch than the first two acts. Still, Tao Zhao manages to command your interest, blowing through the movie like a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. Combined with Jia’s vision of a country in transition, she takes the potentially pedestrian premise of a thousand crime dramas and makes it so much more.