True love may last forever, but can it weather Chinese infrastructure? In Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White, one woman’s loyalty to her love hangs on for 16 years, but it’s 16 years that feel — visually, technologically, and emotionally (and in the run time of the film, for better and worse) — like a century. Wanna feel old? Zhangke asks. Just be in China, for really any duration of time at all. Your feelings and desires and dreams will feel slow and forgotten, as the skyscrapers and high-speed rail spring up around you.
Zhangke, who has become something of a cinematic poet of 21st-century China (Mountains May Depart, A Touch of Sin) once again works with lead actress (and his wife) Tao Zhao. She plays Qiao, who as the film opens, in the year 2001, is the dutiful girlfriend of Bin, a small-time gangster who runs a mah-jongg parlor in the small northern town of Datong. Qiao is the picture of cool, roving the tables, running a hand adorned with a gaudy costume ring over the backs of chairs, her blunt-cut bob perfectly framing her impassive face. She’s from a mining family that’s been hit hard by the drop in coal prices, but with Bin and the economy he’s created around himself, she never has to scrape by.
That changes when Bin is beset by a local gang in the middle of a crowded town square, and Qiao pulls a gun to ward them off, shooting it in the air. The illegal weapon possession charge lands her in jail for five years, and when she’s let out, she finds she has nothing to her name, and Bin is nowhere to be found. She begins a journey down the Yangtze River in search of him, which takes her through a China that’s only just starting to be unrecognizable. The Three Gorges Dam is still the hot new thing, and the effect it will have on the land hasn’t even begun yet. “In a few years, what you see now will be underwater,” an announcer informs the passengers on the river boat as cities and mountains float by.
In the river town of Fengjie, Qiao discovers her wallet and belongings have been stolen, and does what anyone in her situation would do: con a local man into handing her thousands by pretending to be the sister of the girl on the side he knocked up. This begins the best and most exciting act of Ash Is Purest White: Qiao clawing her life back, one con at a time. This could have made up the bulk of Ash; it would have made for a tighter but perhaps less ruminative film. But her new career as a grifter is put on pause when she and Bin finally make contact again. Bin also went to jail after the incident and came back penniless, betrayed by his mob brothers — and he also has a new girlfriend. They rent a motel room and light a newspaper on fire to jump over for good luck, but can’t muster the optimism to even attempt such a thing.
Qiao sets off on her own for the next decade, left to experience the sublime absurdity of the world (including a possible supernatural occurrence) without Bin by her side. There are some great scenes Zhangke conjures, particularly around moments of performance (an early pair of ballroom-dancing routines, a bizarre would-be pop star in a town square). Qiao is more and more alienated from the world the longer she’s separated from Bin, which Zhao mostly underplays, her face only occasionally breaking into a grimace or a smile. She’s laser-focused throughout, which kind of makes one wonder what’s so great about this Bin — Fan Liao is sour and lacking the kind of magnetic charm usually associated with movie gangsters. But as Qiao puts it, she’s motivated by a crime-world sense of “righteousness,” something she learned from Bin himself, even if it’s a code he’s long abandoned.
At two hours and 21 minutes, Zhangke’s film is a journey. The film ends just after the new year of 2018, back in Datong, with its shiny new rail station and same old mah-jongg parlor. By the end, the transformation of China is more compelling than Qiao’s love for Bin, but watching both unfold over time is continually thought-provoking, given the ephemerality of whole cities, much less love affairs. “Am I that important?” Bin asks Qiao at one point. “If not you, what is?” she replies.