At its best, “Jiang Hu Er Nv (Ash is Purest White)” is quietly sublime. Director Jia Zhang-Ke captures (with support from Cinematographer Eric Gautier) a tremendous solitude as he follows his protagonist across the Chinese countryside. At its worst, it’s exactly the kind of slow burn internally driven drama that you’d expect from a festival like Cannes. Which is to say, at its worst, it’s still exceptionally good.
Much of that credit is owed to Zhao Tao (“Mountains May Depart”), who is as much of a revelation as her character, Qiao, is. Qiao and her mobster boyfriend Bin live a charmed life in China’s declining mining province. They drink and dance and are madly in love. Until — in one of the most well shot scenes in recent memory — Qiao shoots Bin’s gun (illegally obtained, of course) to save him from an attack.
She serves five years after refusing to sell out her love. Bin never visits her. But she never loses the hope that he’s out there somewhere waiting for her as vigilantly as she is waiting for him. So when she gets out she begins her trek to find him. There’s an energy running under these scenes of her travels. We know what she knows but won’t admit to herself: Bin hasn’t waited for her.
Amid the heartbreak, Jia infuses his film with an uncanny humor. Every conversation Qiao has is deeply bizarre. A sequence at the end of the second act involving UFO tourism is the film’s only dip into magical realism which stands out for its charm and oddity. The world makes as much sense to the audience as it does to Qiao, which is to say that it doesn’t make any sense at all. But rather than feeling unmoored or directionless, the refusal to be comprehensible only grounds the audience more wholly in Qiao’s mind.
In this way, Jia keeps her at once intimate and unknowable — a force we recognize but cannot predict. The plot does much the same. As soon as two brilliant scams push us into revenge drama territory, Jia pulls back and spins us around in a wholly different direction.
For the first two hours, “Ash” is masterfully done. Every beat is deserved. Props and themes are set up and paid off with the seamless skill of a master filmmaker. Long-takes and slow scenes fail to drag. After the film hits the peak of its sublimity during a second act turn that could very easily have closed the film, “Ash” jumps another five or so years into the future for a third act that struggles to prove its necessity.
“Ash” feels like a movie built around Zhao’s talents (not out of the question given Jia and Zhao’s off-screen relationship) instead of a strong narrative. That is perhaps why it makes it to the third act before it begins falling apart. Even then, as the plot catches up to the film’s energy, it’s a joy to watch Zhao bring Qiao more and more to life with every turn. If a plot is going take a backseat to its principle actress, Zhao is the actress for which to do it.
“Ash” is a sweeping saga of a country and character in transition, a masterfully shot and brilliantly acted portrait of love, loneliness and the impossible task that is living in the world.