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Ash Is Purest White

(Jiang hu er nv)

By the director of Still Life and Mountains May Depart

In Ash Is Purest White, a story of thwarted yet resilient love, Jia Zhangke, the revered Chinese director (A Touch Of Sin), subtly distills nearly two decades of gradual social change into the story of a small-town gangster and his moll. A beautiful marriage of the political and the personal, 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 sycophantic attention of his comrades and underlings.

Poster for the epic Chinese love story Ash Is Purest White 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 more than holds her own in this masculine enclave, and her own belief in the brotherly codes of the jianghu 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.

Ash Is Purest White is fierce, gripping, emotionally generous and surprisingly funny: The movie’s most entertaining moments find Qiao using her hard-earned street smarts to pull herself out of short-term hunger and poverty. Meanwhile, even those accustomed to seeing Zhao in Jia’s movies (the two are married and collaborate frequently) will be impressed by the depths of her acting here. It’s the richest, most subtly complex performance she’s given to date.

– Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

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