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Jia Zhang-ke, China’s pre-eminent contemporary filmmaker – and veteran poet of modern life in flux – continues his blessed run with this blazing jianghu drama starring his faithful partner and leading lady, Zhao Tao, a force to be reckoned with.
“A beautiful marriage of the political and the personal... Ash Is Purest White subtly distills nearly two decades of gradual social change into the story of a small-town gangster and his moll. The movie opens in 2001, in the northern village of Datong, where Guo Bin (Liao Fan), a member of the jianghu underworld, runs a mahjong parlor… But from the start, it’s Bin’s girlfriend, Qiao (Zhao Tao), who magnetizes the camera’s attention… A fiercely devoted partner to Bin, she more than holds her own in this masculine enclave, and her own belief in the brotherly codes of the jianghu, a commitment referenced by the title, runs startlingly deep.
When Bin is attacked by local thugs, it is Qiao who fatefully intervenes and pays the steepest price. From there, the film undergoes a series of thrilling narrative reversals but always keeps Qiao at the fore, grounding its portrait of long-term social and technological flux with the kind of gutsy, lovelorn heroine who would be right at home in a 1940s Hollywood melodrama…
In its swirl of violence and emotion… [Jia’s film] is fierce, gripping, emotionally generous and surprisingly funny... Meanwhile, even those accustomed to seeing Zhao in Jia’s movies… might be taken aback by the depths of her acting here… with the richest, most subtly complex performance she’s given to date.” — Justin Chang, LA Times