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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Ash Is Purest White’: a study of today’s China

For one more weekend, you'll be able to catch the Chinese film "Ash Is Purest White" at the Magic Lantern Theatre. In the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I try to make a case for why you should:

When ejected from an erupting volcano, molten rock can reach temperatures of some 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot enough to reduce pretty much anything to ash.

Qiao, the lead character of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke’s film “Ash is Purest White,” doesn’t get immersed in lava. Metaphorically speaking, though, what she goes through leaves her, if not exactly pure, then certainly wiser about her culture and, more important, about herself.

When we first meet Qiao, she is with Bin, a small-time gang leader who oversees gambling dens as well as doing other – often illegal – jobs for the local mob boss. Independent and confident, yet loyal to Bin, Qiao understands the code to which her partner and his jianghu – or mob – brothers adhere. 

And the dictates of that code come into play when a younger group of gangsters makes a grab for power, first eliminating Bin’s boss and then nearly killing him – which Qiao prevents, but only by facing the gang down with a pistol, a serious infraction in China that earns her a five-year prison term.

Humbled behind bars, the once-proud Qiao emerges to find that Bin has deserted her. Never one to give up, though, Qiao goes in search of him – proving along the way that she is still able to survive, whether that involves confronting and intimidating a thief or conning a naïve guy harboring a guilty conscience.

And when she does, finally, find Bin, it’s clear who is the stronger of the two.

Qiao is played by the actress Zhao Tao, director Jia’s wife, and she ably carries the film’s weighty intentions, even if not all may be readily comprehensible to Western audiences. There’s the train sequence where Qiao is tempted to go off with a humble-braggart who claims to be doing research on UFOs. And there’s another sequence in which Qiao sees lights moving across a stormy sky that could be actual UFOs or just as likely could be nature’s revenge.

Which isn’t the first time Jia has explored China’s relationship with its changing landscape. Both in “Ash in Purest White” and his 2006 film “Still Life,” Jia spends time in the cities, towns and villages – not to mention among the millions of people – that ended up being displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project.

Not that he takes an overtly political position. Jia isn’t so much a cultural commentator as he is an observer. And that’s understandable. Whatever its detriments, which are many, the Three Gorges project is part of China’s ongoing attempts to shed the remnants of colonial rule and claim what it sees as its rightful place on the world stage.

In terms of Jia’s characters, though, even more may be going on. Bin’s loss of power indicates that he may never have been all that strong to begin with, while Qiao shows that when it comes to understanding the soul of a true jianghu, she has the edge.

In the end, Qiao may not experience either purity or happiness. But she proves better equipped than Bin to bridge old-world codes with those that are new.