A fascinating look at social strata in modern China emerges via the personal stories told in writer-director Jia Zhang-Ke’s new film, “Ash is Purest White,” which was shown in the 2018 New York Film Festival and is now going into commercial release. The film provides a look at underworld characters bonding in their lifestyle of petty crime. It is also a love story. Importantly, it reveals fading old industries, much as occurs in mining areas of our own West Virginia, and there is eye-catching, sweeping cinematography of sections in China’s northwest. We see upscale types too, and displays of liking for Western-style music and dancing. There is much to behold in so many ways in Zhang-Ke’s striking achievement.

A special treat is the performance by actress Zhao Tao in the pivotal role of Qiao, a woman in love with local gang boss Bin. Tao, who is beautiful, portrays a strong woman who displays the stamina to withstand a five-year prison sentence after she fires shots in the air to rescue Bin from rival young hoodlums even though that reveals her illegally having a gun, but which is Bin’s. She insists the gun is hers and takes the rap for him.

Qiao is also a woman who must use her wits and determination after being released and finding that Bin has moved on in a relationship with another woman. Tao endows Qiao with special dignity in her determination to confront Bin. There is much pleasure to be found in Tao’s stunning performance.

Actor Liao Fan is also excellent as Bin in capturing the gangster’s need to be a big shot in his circle. He must have status, or otherwise he feels he is a broken man of no worth. It is a sensitive performance that earns some sympathy for Bin even though he is a thorough louse for abandoning Qiao after she sacrifices years of her life in prison after having saving him from a severe beating that could have resulted in his death.

Even with all of that heavy plotting, “Ash is Purest White" has its humor. While on a boat after her release from prison, a woman steals her purse and money. Qiao prowls among upscale family events and confronts a man with a story of a girlfriend being pregnant and needing money. After a rebuff by the man who has no such girlfriend, she hits on a guy for whom the story fits and makes him fear embarrassment, and she comes away with considerable cash. It is a funny but nervy display by Qiao.

(Her ploy reminds me of the joke that surfaced during the U.S. great depression, when hungry guys would pretend to be relatives or acquaintances to crash a wedding so they could be fed. “Are you on the bride’s side or the groom’s side?” an interloper was asked. “The bride’s side,” he ventured, only to be told, “Get the hell out of here—this is a bar mitzvah.”)

Qiao is ever resourceful and makes us feel for her when she finally does confront Bin, whom she still loves. In a delicate scene with long pauses he rejects her, but that is not the end of the situation. The film moves on in years and Bin, now a physically handicapped stroke victim, is back with the old group. So is Qiao.

If this were just a love story, the film would be arresting but comparatively limited. What’s special is how much we observe of the life in that part of China as we follow the story. The film is an eye-opener, and very rich in that respect. Supporting characters are well-played, contributing to the feeling of realism. The title itself, as I understand it, is metaphorical, referring to a conversation Qiao and BIn have about ash turning white when a volcano erupts, just as there is fallout when human life emotionally erupts. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed March 11, 2019.

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