Cast: Zhao Tao, Lian Fao, Feng Xiaogang, Xu Zheng
Director: Jia Zhangke
Coming out of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, there was a lot of buzz surrounding Ash Is Purest White and even though it didn’t end up winning any of the festival’s awards, the film has been met with almost universal acclaim. I don’t watch a whole lot of movies that come from China, so it’s certainly an eye-opening experience for me whenever I have the opportunity to watch movies from a culture that I don’t know much about. Through a combination of an interesting story and phenomenal performances, Ash Is Purest White is able to overcome the cultural barriers that foreigners may have when watching it and captivates all audiences for almost all of its 136 minute runtime.
The film follows the relationship between Zhao Qiao (Tao) and Guo Bin (Fan), a couple who help run a local gang and who have significant power and influence in the area where they live. Over the course of the film, we see how the external factors of the life they chose influence their relationship and the positive and negative effects that the world has created for them. The one thing that stands out about this movie is just how authentic and real the plot and the performances feel. You can feel the pain that Zhao is going through during these events and it is very obvious that she loves and cares for Guo very deeply. You may not agree with her course of action and the sacrifices she makes for this relationship, but anyone who has been in a similar situation before can relate to her life choices. Sure most of us haven’t been involved in gangs with a loved one before, but generally we support one another and want the best for each other the way that Zhao supports Guo. While some of the cultural specifics may go over the heads of viewers like me who don’t have much familiarity with Chinese culture and their way of life, the central premise goes beyond the nation’s borders and can be relayed into a story that everyone can understand regardless if you speak the language or not. All of this is made possible by the performance of Tao in the lead role. Zhao is the only character that really undergoes any dramatic or substantial issues in the film, so it was paramount that Tao gave a performance to match this struggle. Where Tao stands out is her ability to connect the proper emotion to almost every scene she’s in. Whether this the high of being in love and supporting her boyfriend, to the sadness and strife she feels from the sacrifices she makes in this relationship, Tao delivers a powerhouse performance that could honestly compete with some of the best we’ve seen this year. This may be the end of the line for Ash Is Purest White from an awards perspective, but that doesn’t negate the level of effort and intensity in which she acts and proves that Tao is one of China’s most talented actresses.
Overall, Ash Is Purest White is a great introductory film for someone with an interest in exploring international films. While some of the themes and plot devices don’t exactly translate to western audiences, the general concept and presence of the movie can be enjoyed by pretty much anyone. When you take a premise as simple as love, pain, and the middle ground that lives between the two, audiences from around the world will enjoy Ash Is Purest White and will be something they think about for quite some time after they finish watching the movie.
Overall Score: 7/10