Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Love and loyalty in a changing China

Ash Is Purest White sets the story of a strong woman against a backdrop of economic upheaval.

Chinese director Jia Zhangke sets his new movie -- Ash Is Purest White -- in a climate of economic change and moral collapse. In telling the story of a woman (Tao Zhao) who sacrifices five years of her life for her crime-boss lover (Fan Liao), Jia also manages to explore China's shifting economic climate, a move toward what appears to be unbridled entrepreneurship that began roughly in 2000.

To emphasize such seismic social upheaval, Jia begins his movie in a former coal-mining town before moving through some of China's newly developed cities; he immerses us in a world in which people feel increasingly unmoored.

Tao, who's married to the director, gives the movie its unshifting center. Her Qiao hitches her fate to that of Fan's Bin, a gangster who doesn't exactly wield Godfather-like authority.

At one point, Bin suffers a terrible beating at the hands of young rivals; Qiao saves him by firing a gun in the air and dispersing Bin's assailants. She winds up doing five years in prison for illegal possession of a firearm. The gun belonged to Bin.

After her release from prison, Qiao travels up the Yangtze River, thinking that she'll reunite with Bin and resume her life where it left off five years earlier. It doesn't take much foresight to know that by this time, Bin will have moved on.

Divided into three main sections, the movie charts Quai's life in the coal town of Datong, follows her to jail and then moves into China's rapidly developing cities, faceless towns that seem to have burst on the scene in the wake of the Chinese boom. A final chapter, almost an epilogue, takes place when Qiao returns to Datong and, more or less, takes charge of the gang Bin once led.

As it turns out, the mobsters -- who initially pledge themselves to loyalty, righteousness, and brotherhood -- can't abide by any of their values. Only Qiao adheres to them; she lives by a code that the much weaker men are all-too-willing to bend. In this brotherhood of crime, the only truly staunch person is a sister.

Jia supports the plot with plenty of intriguing incidental observations: frenzied dancing to the Village People's YMCA at a mob-run nightclub, the gloomy fate of coal miners who are being left behind by an evolving economy, the transition from old-fashioned crime to a white-collar era, and, in an incident on a train, the need for ordinary people to enlarge themselves in the eyes of others. A passenger Qiao meets while traveling claims to be running a business based on tracking UFOs.

There are other oddities, some of with a comic twist. A real estate magnate who seeks Bin's help claims to have two interests: animal documentaries and ballroom dancing. Two of his hand-picked favorite dancers strut their stuff at his funeral.

Not all of this works equally well, but Jia aims big: telling an old-fashioned story of betrayal and loyalty while showing how social change works to undermine any sense of communal cohesion.

Not that the director takes sides: At the end of this often-odd but never uninteresting movie, we're left wondering whether any of the characters have gotten anywhere or whether, as one of the movie's strangest moments suggests, they're all marching to beats made hollow by a cosmos that couldn't care less what any of them are striving toward.

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