There is a macabre allure to the sight of an erupting volcano: the darkness, the blackened earth, the lava — thick, glowing, molten fire that transforms all it touches.
The volcano is an apt metaphor for long-term destruction and big-picture change, as sublimely embodied in Jia Zhangke’s newest film, Ash Is Purest White. The story follows Qiao (Zhao Tao) through her own trial by fire after an explosive incident leaves her to navigate romance, class, and social anxieties through a rapidly changing China.
The film opens in 2001 in the northern Chinese town of Datong. An ongoing power struggle between Datong’s exploited workforce and a faceless bourgeois serves as the backdrop for the movie’s first act. Qiao and her boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan), a small-time mob boss, have managed to carve a foothold for themselves within the crumbling local economy. He is a measured, intimidating leader of the criminal underground, she is his inquisitive and self-assured partner, and they revel in subtly flexing their power (one amusing recurring detail: Bin almost never lights his own cigarette — one lackey or another, arm outstretched, always has a lighter for available for him).
Ash Is Purest White maintains a menacing balancing act throughout its first half, but there are stirrings of change to come. Mahjong games are bookended by labor strikes. Criminal dealings are brokered in nightclubs as crowds party to “YMCA,” a nod to Western culture taking hold in twenty-first century China. Violence is hinted at but remains unseemly, like the sight of a gun clattering on a neon-lit dance floor.
And then Bin’s face is bashed into the hood of a car. A gang of men attack one night and threaten to dethrone him; they will not relent. The scene is so very brutal, and so very loud, until Qiao’s very illegal gunshot cuts cleanly through the chaos — to save Bin, she uses his contraband gun to send a warning shot skyward. He survives. She is jailed for five years.
Before her time in prison, Qiao is established as a capable survivor and heir of the jianghu — the word, while difficult to translate into English, describes a lifestyle outside of mainstream society governed by a strict system of honor and ethics. Then Ash Is Purest White applies pressure. Upon her release, Qiao has little to her name and no human connections left, including Bin, whose radio silent abandonment of Qiao during her imprisonment spoke volumes.
Still, Qiao demands answers, and in her mission to reconnect with Bin she confronts a China in transition. The systemic factors that shaped the world Qiao inhabits — environmental threats, rampant social inequality, exploited laborers, even state surveillance — are always somewhere in frame, just slightly out of focus. She ferries past the future site of the Three Gorges Dam, which would eventually displace over a million people and pose a lasting threat to regional wildlife. She becomes fluent in modern technology, expertly navigating both iPhones and video security systems while inadvertently surrendering much of her personal privacy — a conflict we’re now grappling with in 2019. Even the things that do not change, such as gender dynamics and socioeconomic stratification, are handled with a sense of humor and a keen understanding of her place in the world, as Qiao manipulates the narrative to con wealthy, scummy men out of food, money, and transportation.
Though her journey begins in service of finding Bin, Qiao ends up piecing her world back together all on her own. In contrast, she finds Bin penniless, alone, and eventually bound to a wheelchair. His acridity towards Qiao — towards the world, indiscriminately — is both overwhelming and pathetic. He was burned and snuffed out; Qiao, it turns out, was transformed.
Early on in Ash Is Purest White, Qiao and Bin take a stroll in the outskirts of town. A volcano looms in the distance, both a relic and an omen, and Qiao makes a prophetic observation. “Volcano ash is very pure, isn’t it?” she wonders. “Anything that burns at high temperatures is made pure.”