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).