Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Ash Is Purest White

Bonnie and Clyde on Valium

Review by Ken Burke

             Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-Ke)   Not Rated

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers) In 2001, in a region of China not usually seen in more Western-oriented-films, we encounter a local gangster (Bin) and his lover (Qiao), living comfortable lives until challenges arise from young punks who want to take over the territory.  One night Qiao has to fire Bin’s illegal gun to scare off a bunch of attackers, leading to her imprisonment when she claims ownership of the weapon.  Despite no visits from Bin during her 5-year-term, she seeks him out upon her release only to find he’s difficult to locate, also now has another woman in his life.  Her attempts to navigate this heartbreaking situation as well as find a new direction for herself constitute the rest of this slow-moving, lengthy (137 min.) narrative which you’ll have to track down on your own (difficult, given it’s playing in only a few theaters at present) or take a spoilers-be-damned-attitude while plunging fully into my no-secrets-left-unspoken-review just below.  Many others find good reason to offer high praise for Ash Is Purest White (a metaphor for how intense tribulation purifies even while destroying); however, my non-familiarity with this director’s previous work as well as not fully appreciating how this film’s content reflects 21st century sociohistorical trends in China possibly make me a poor choice for either seeing or reviewing Ash … .  Yet, even just as a dramatic encounter onscreen I found it at best as mildly interesting but ponderous, unresolved in many aspects, not what I’d consider “must-see-cinema,” which I chose to watch only because of its consistent critical support along with few other currently-playing-options I was willing to trek across the San Francisco Bay Area to see.  Maybe you’d find Ash Is Purest White to be fascinating (the trailer certainly makes it look so); however, it didn’t mesmerize me much, even though this director-screenwriter's explanations of autobiographical motivations feel compelling.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: We’re in Datong in 2001, a coal-mining-city in rugged Shanxi Provence (just west of Beijing) where local jianghu (according to press notes, translates literally as “rivers and lakes” but implies “different people,” which in this case more specifically connotes the unrest associated with these complex gangster characters) Guo Bin (Liao Fan) is a quiet, confident leader of his gang, run from a mahjong/gambling parlor where lover Zhao Qiao (Zhao Tao) is as cockily-confident as he is about her place in the immediate social plateaus but is even more assertive of her presence around Bin’s men, knowing the power she commands (although she’s much softer, respectful when dealing with her aging, dementia-prone-father who uses a radio transmitter to rail against the injustices of the coal mine operators, to little effect).  Qiao’s lavish enough in her tastes to command their driver to go 100 miles for her favorite dumplings, then flighty enough to call off the trip before he’s even gone 50 yards.  Those in Bin’s crime society refer to each other as “brother” and “sister,” with Brother Eyong (sorry, no further cast I.D.s, even in those press notes) seemingly the boss in this area, although his stature comes from shady-real estate-business (Where have I heard something similar to that?) which is shaken when young punks defy the establishment first by killing Eyong, then attacking Bin by slamming his leg with a pipe (his 2 assailants are caught but oddly let go when they admit he was the wrong target for their assigned hit).  In an interlude, Qiao and Bin are in the countryside looking at a dormant volcano where she talks of ash from such eruptions as being pure because it’s created at such high heat.  Afterward, they’re challenged one night while being driven through town, suddenly finding themselves surrounded by a gang of those punks on motorbikes who bring their car to a halt.  In a scene surely inspired by Hong Kong martial-arts-movies, first their driver attempts to fight off the pack of thugs only to be beaten down quickly followed by Bin making better impact against these guys until he’s overcome by superior numbers armed with small shovels.  To save him from a further beating (or worse), Qiao fires Bin’s illegal pistol into the air,  then points it at the various attackers who quickly flee.  Just as quickly we find her in jail, constantly asserting the gun is hers, protecting Bin but landing Qiao in prison for 5 years.

 When she’s released in 2006 Qiao attempts to find Bin, who’s never visited her, learns he’s moved to the Three Gorges area in the warm, humid southwest (with the irony of industrial growth set to uproot lives as local towns will soon be flooded by a new dam), but she can’t locate him (although we see him hiding from her as a mutual friend claims Bin’s out traveling on business); she gets the news he’s got another girlfriend so she’s pretty much on her own in this new environment where she survives by such tactics as crashing a wedding reception where she eats well, then hustles gamblers by claiming to be the sister of a woman one of them’s had an affair with, gets hush money to help her “pregnant sibling.”  After stealing a motorbike, then accusing its owner of trying to rape her in order to get help from the local police, she manages to make contact with Bin so they meet at a hotel.  He’s says he’s now honest but broke, she wants to reconnect but is willing to move on, he’s noncommittal, she leaves in the rain.  ⇒Next we see her in an audience singing along with a song about lost love, then she’s on a train back to her homeland (Even though coal-mining’s dying out; seems I’ve heard something about that before too!) when she meets a man attracted to her, wanting her to join him in his tourist-travel-venture to sites where UFOs were supposedly sighted.  She still seems interested when he admits he only runs a small convenience store, but he backs off a bit when she admits being an ex-con; she calls Bin again, they meet back in Datong where he’s in a wheelchair having suffered a stroke due to drinking too much.  They reconnect in a minimal fashion, frequently arguing, with little activity by them with the old gang.  By 2018 he’s gone through some acupuncture treatments allowing him to walk again, so he leaves which makes her very angry, with the last shot of her in the film shown from a surveillance camera in their apartment complex.⇐

So What? (Thank God this title has nothing to do with the racist insanity recently spouted by that homicidal maniac in New Zealand before going on his murderous rampage, although some likeminded-Internet-explorers may accidently find this film when doing their various searches for sites justifying their bigoted views of the world.)  Had the director’s original idea (as explained in the press notes) for a title for screenings outside  of China held up—Sons and Daughters of the Jianghu (Jianghu Ernü in Mandarin or maybe jiänghú érnü; I’ve seen it stated both ways, would appreciate any clarification from anyone who knows the language where in traditional Chinese it’s 江湖)—there wouldn’t even be a consideration about something that says “Purest White” in these days of increasingly worldwide inter-ethnic tensions, but that original title, after the film ran at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, seemed a bit obscure for non-Chinese audiences so it was changed to something implying (as best I understand it) that the circumstances most effective in “purifying” a person or situation may be so intense as to destroy them in the process (at least symbolically, to eradicate all the remnants of the past hindering ongoing needs of the present), just as Qiao is ultimately purged of Bin, even as such resolution grieves her while it serves as a necessity.  Anyway, this interpretation (flawed as it may be) is my best takeaway from a potentially-engaging-but-ploddingly-slow, emotionally-restrained narrative I guess I’m just not the target audience for, given how distant my response is from the critical-consensus, with a prized-collection of 97% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a notably-higher-than-usual 84% average score at Metacritic (more details below in the Related Links section of this posting).  I won’t say the pace was boring, although it was near-glacial in its development (except for those Hong Kong-inspired-action-scenes and a heartfelt-yet-dismal extended conversation between the former lovers late into the story), which isn’t necessarily a stylistic difficulty (Antonioni was a master in using such an approach), but the final sense for me was one of detached-observation with little concern for how the events of Qiao’s life ultimately evolved, with or without her command of those circumstances.  Still, director Jia (Chinese tradition leads with the surname, so his given name’s Zhang-Ke)—better known by other reviewers than by me, apparently—is quite content with what he’s accomplished here: “I now have 48 years of life experiences, and I want to use them to tell a love story set in a contemporary China, which has gone through epic and dramatic transformations. It makes me feel that I’ve lived that way myself – and that I still do.”  I can’t argue with that, but I can’t connect with it much either.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Unless Ash … is available to you through some video means, you’re not going to have much chance to debate me on its merits, at least for awhile because it’s currently playing in only 7 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters (including the Berkeley, CA one where I saw it) grossing a scant $45.1 thousand (minuscule compared to Captain Marvel’s [Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck; review in our March 14, 2019 posting] global take of $789.4 million [$270 million domestic]), although that was for a debut weekend so maybe it’ll expand further in coming weeks.  Further, if I were more aware of how conditions in China evolved over these early years of the 21st century—as Jia clearly is, working and living within an environment I learn little about from my limited news sources (my fault, not theirs) except for debates over theft of intellectual properly, big-tech-hesitancy to challenge social-media-censorship because of higher-profit-preferences, along with viabilities of the current trade wars between this huge global influencer and the U.S. (as the former seeks to expand while the latter, under Trump “policies,” becomes more isolationist [see this recent Doonesbury cartoon for commentary])—maybe I’d be more receptive to the expansive social landscape being explored in what seems to be a low-key version of FOX TV’s Empire where Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) also went to jail (but for a much longer sentence) to protect husband Lucious (Terrence Howard)—although they’ve now resolved their previous-seasons’-squabbles to present a united front against their corporate enemies, unlike how Qiao was never able to truly reconnect with Bin despite cohabitating again even though she claimed to no longer have feelings for him; as it is, however, Ash Is Purest White isn’t burning with any intense response for me, especially as it plods along for so many somber minutes.  So, like Bin, I’ll just fade away, leaving you with a last-comment Musical Metaphor from a culture far-removed from coal-mining- (although Bin, Qiao, and their associates seemed to revel in aspects of American pop far-removed from stereotypes of dour Communism [Mao Zedong would be horrified!], illustrated by this early scene as they’re all grooving to the Village People’s "Y.M.C.A." [from their 1978 Crusin’ album—but not being used as a Musical Metaphor here], followed in this current film by a dancing pair who seem to be channeling Tony Manero [John Travolta] and a partner from Saturday Night Fever [John Badham, 1977]), that is, the nightlife-culture of beer-stained, brokenhearted memories in Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” (first for him on his 1962 debut album … And Then I Wrote) performed here by Patsy Cline (from her 1961 Showcase album) at KM (her original recording along with photos of her, lyrics below the YouTube screen) to mirror Qiao’s thoughts about her difficult man, “Crazy for thinking that my love could hold you I’m crazy for trying and crazy for crying And I’m crazy for loving you,” she acknowledges as he’s gone for good.

 However, before I’m gone—not for good but until we reconveneI’m once again feeling I’m underserving you with only 1 review this week (especially of such an obscure film, even if you’d totally disagree with me should you find an opportunity to see it) because—once again—other activities have limited my first-run-viewing-time (but not so much as to keep me from re-watching The Departed [Martin Scorsese, 2006; his only Oscar win for Best Director—it also won for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay {based on Hong Kong's Internal Affairs from Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002, providing me with another obscure link to Ash Is Purest White}, Best Film Editing] on Netflix video, which I won’t offer a review of except to note that if I did I’d easily assign it my 5 stars*).  Therefore, I’ll extend this Musical Metaphor section a bit (even as I wander off-track some), first by providing you with Nelson singing his own version of "Crazy" (from a 1992 Highwaymen concert in Scotland, with other musicians than from his regular backup-band) as well as turning to Willie’s friend Bob Dylan for a somewhat-related, actual-extra Metaphor, "4th Time Around" (from the magnificent 1966 Blonde on Blonde album; Bob’ song supposedly a response of sorts to The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” [on their equally-magnificent 1965 Rubber Soul album]) where not all of Dylan’s lyrics or narrative situation directly connect to Ash … but some certainly do, if you imagine Qiao saying to Bin: “I stood in the dirt where everyone walked […] And I tried to make sense Out of that picture of you in your wheelchair […] And you, you took me in You loved me then You never wasted time And I, I never took much I never asked for your crutch Now don’t ask for mine.”  Which, ultimately, he doesn’t, healing from wheelchair to crutches to a cane as he walks out on her, which I’ll now do as well but with my hopes of meeting up with you again soon.

*(Warning: Complete Diversion Coming Up) My rarely-used-5 stars easily equate to what San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle (whom I don’t always agree with, but I will this time—although, as is, his premise is a bit incomplete) details as the 6 criteria of a cinematic classic, allowing him to explain how works such as Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942 [which I celebrated in a similar aside in my previous postingeven though I had considerably more to write about that week])The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), plus contemporary offerings BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018; review in our August 16, 2018 posting), Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018; review in our November 29, 2018 posting).  If you’d apply these criteria to The Departed you’d easily find: 1. Topicality—impact of crime in society, corruption within the ranks of lawmen; 2. Timelessness—personal loyalty vs. aspects of the social contract; 3. One Great Scene (I’d say you’d likely find several in a classic)there are many, including the final assassination followed by a rat scurrying across the balcony railing; 4. A Great Performance—plenty of them, especially by Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga; 5. An Overarching Consciousness or Personality—you easily know this as a Scorsese production even before you hear those strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” again; 6. A Complex Finish—little of the underlying social deterioration’s solved here, just a lot of bodies piling up, leaving us with a sense of remorse.  To these I’ll add 7. An Intriguing Storyline (even if you have to work to keep up with it)—there’s so much going on in The Departed’s 2 main plot-threads you never have a chance to get distracted with outside thoughts; 8. Some Significant Cinematics—the editing here is a formidable tactic keeping all those plot points in motion, constantly pulling them into dramatic comparison/tension.  Maybe all this qualifies as a 5-star-review of The Departed under my often-used-Short Takes-heading, but I won’t count it as such; however, I will encourage you to see (or see again) this Scorsese masterpiece which runs about as long as Ash Is Purest White, but I (naïve American that I am) feel it's far superior, maybe because I just never got comfortable with the slow pace of these Chinese gangsters, featuring Qiao frequently just standing there (wherever she was) in response to the actions (more often dialogue with little action) of the plot’s progression (whatsoever it might be).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Ash Is Purest White: (Press Kit area has extensive notes from the director) (38:07 interview with director Jia Zhang-Ke, translated from Mandarin [I suppose] to English)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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