Ash Is Purest White: Jia Zhangke’s Tale of Gangster and his Moll–and Social Change

In his work, Jia Zhangke, the revered Chinese writer-director, has depicted the chaos of life in a rapidly evolving country.

In Ash Is Purest White, he distills 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 and enjoys the attention of his comrades and underlings.

But from the start, it’s Bin’s girlfriend, Qiao (Zhao Tao), who magnetizes the camera’s attention, whether she’s playfully socking his buddies or hitting the dance floor while “YMCA” blasts in the background. A fiercely devoted partner to Bin, she 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 deep.

When Bin is attacked by local thugs, Qiao who intervenes and pays the 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 bold and seductive heroine.

Qiao and Bin continue to cross paths over the years, enjoying some odd moment of tenderness, only to have the past come rushing back with seething, explosive force. But their difficult present and uncertain future weigh on them heavily.

The movie is about how time and circumstances conspire to make all of us restless wanderers.

In recent years, Jia’s work has become less formal and bolder in using genre, as seen in his two most recent Cannes Fest entries: “A Touch of Sin” (2013), a thriller about individuals driven to acts of rebellion, and “Mountains May Depart” (2015), about a family fractured by greed.

In its swirl of violence and emotion, the new movie feels like a summation of those two most recent pictures, even as it braids together settings and story elements from Jia’s earlier films “Unknown Pleasures” (2002) and “Still Life” (2008), his surreally tinged docu-fiction about the incalculable impact of the Three Gorges Dam project.

“Ash Is Purest White,” which is fierce, gripping, and surprisingly funny. The movie contains entertaining moments about how Qiao is using her street smarts to pull herself out of hunger and poverty.

Zhao and Jia are married and collaborate frequently. “Mountains May Depart” was a breakthrough for her, and she surpasses it here with her most subtly complex performance to date.