It’s only a matter of minutes before a loaded gun is produced. Not unusual considering Ash is Purest White revolves around two gangsters, but this is mid-’90s China and unregister firearms are illegal and come with a heavy penalty. Just showing someone the gun is enough to make your point; firing it would seal your fate.
Qiao (Tao Zhao) is the girlfriend, and Bin (Fan Liao) is the gangster on his way up. Rival gangs are a constant menace, and sudden attacks are a way of life. Most are harmless, a few are even a simple case of mistaken identity, but when one challenge threatens Bin’s life, Qiao fires Chekov’s pistol and spends the next five years in prison. When she emerges into the 21st century, Bin is nowhere to be found, and Qiao sets off on a quest in search of her long-lost boyfriend.
This quest takes up the majority of Ash is Purest White’s 137-minute runtime, most of it Qiao alone amidst a sea of strange faces and stunning landscapes. Director Jia Zhangeke, working with cinematographer Eric Gautier, captures these moments with precision. It doesn’t matter if Qiao is seated in a dim sum restaurant, among misty mountains, or standing in a concrete courtyard; every locale isolates her more and more—isolation further compounded when Bin finally appears.
Written by Zhangeke, Ash is Purest White is a sprawling odyssey of a film, traversing one of the largest countries on the planet through the prism of the past twenty years. The third act, in particular, portrays the feeling of both time passed and time passing and the futility of trying to hold on to either. And though the movie concludes with a final isolating image, previous images of symmetry seem to suggest that no element dances alone forever.