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‘Ash is Purest White’

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The personal portrays the political in Zhangke Jia's "Ash is Purest White," as Qiao (Tao Zhao) faces her demons without emotion as she travels throughout China. PHOTO COURTESY OF COHEN MEDIA GROUP

4/5 stars

By Anna Husted EBS FILM CRITIC

Film critics, myself included, are slowly catching on to the brilliance of the last 10 years of filmmaking in China, with Contemporary Chinese filmmakers are creating great films at a fast rate, subtly undermining the authoritarian Chinese government through their stories.

A few titles highlighted recently on the Filmspotting podcast include the fantastical realist film “The Midnight After,” historical action comedy “Let the Bullets Fly” and the World War II film “Our Time Will Come.” But the latest in this treasure trove of Chinese films is director Zhangke Jia’s “Ash is Purest White.”

“Ash is Purest White” is about a young woman, Qiao (Tao Zhao), who is arrested for shooting an illegal firearm that she stole from her boyfriend to save him from doing something worse with the gun. She serves five hard years in prison and upon her release scours China for the boyfriend she saved but who never visited her in prison.  

Through her travels we see the best and the worst of the country: massive and mountainous countrysides, poor and filthy urban neighborhoods, and one community displaced and flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. The scene on the ferry crossing the lake created by Three Gorges Dam is powerful in its understanding of China and for the toll it takes on our newly freed protagonist: As she wakes from the sleeper section of the ferry, we are told by an announcer over the loudspeaker that this next town will be flooded by the following year due to the progress of the newly built dam. As the announcer finishes, Qiao turns her back on her belongings to look at the town and someone steals her money, capping a beautifully shot scene that acts as a metaphor for China stealing people’s livelihoods with reckless abandon.

Eric Gautier, who is famous for the road movies “Into the Wild,” “The Motorcycle Diaries” and On the Road,” haunts “Ash is Purest White” with his evocative cinematography, and while “Ash is Purest White” is a quiet, informative film without true catharsis or nostalgia for things lost, its breathtaking cinematography drives its politics. I highly recommend this film as an introduction to Chinese culture and contemporary Chinese cinema. 

Director Jia portrays somewhat differing ideas about romanticism because there is no one and nothing left for Qiao upon her return from prison, yet the vast landscapes show that the true romance is with China herself. Qiao must figure out how to love the country that betrayed her for her loyalty to its people.  

For those of you who shy away from films you must digest through subtitles, let me say that this film places more emphasis on vision than dialogue. Have patience with foreign films and you will be rewarded. 

“Ash is Purest White” is available to stream on Kanopy. Contact the Big Sky Community Library to sign up for Kanopy, free of charge.

Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found skiing or at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s reading, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.

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