Ash is Purest White is a gangster movie. Well, sort of. Sure, the movie opens with a room full of low-level gangsters gambling, but openings can be deceiving. From there, it’s only a matter of minutes before one gangster pulls a loaded gun on another. Not exactly an unusual item in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, but in mid-’90s China, an unregistered firearm is illegal and comes with a devastating penalty. Showing the gun is enough to make your point; firing it would seal your fate.

Bin (Liao Fan) is the gangster on his way up, and Qiao (Zhao Tao) is his girlfriend. It isn’t obvious at first, but this is her story. Over a century of cinematic storytelling has taught us to pay attention to the loudmouthed male full of bravado. Partly because we have a feeling of where his temper and mouth will land him, and partly because there is sick satisfaction in watching the yapping dog get his.

Rival gangs are a constant menace, and sudden attacks are a way of life. Most are harmless. One even involves a case of mistaken identity. But, when one challenge threatens Bin’s life, Qiao takes action, pulls out Chekov’s proverbial pistol, and, with a simple squeeze of the trigger, condemns herself to five years behind bars. When she re-emerges, it’s the 21st century, and Bin is nowhere to be found. With little other recourse, Qiao sets off on a quest across China 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 Zhangke, 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. But, she soldiers on, convinced that if she could only find Bin, her isolation would evaporate. Zhangke leads the audience to a similar conclusion, but when Bin finally appears, Qiao’s isolation is compounded further still.

Written by Zhangke, 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 20 years. There’s a sense that Qiao’s wanderings are also an opportunity for Zhangke to capture a vanishing present—a feeling most evident in the movie’s third act. Here Zhangke and Tao work in perfect harmony to portray a sense of both time-passed and time-passing and the futility of trying to hold on to either.

And yet, there is poetry at work here that eschews fatalism. Zhangke and Tao have been working together since 2000’s Platform and married since 2012. Though Ash is Purest White concludes with a final isolating image, previous ones suggest symmetry. Though we may be lonely, nothing ever dances alone. Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

A version of the above article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 34, “Me without you.”