Recommendation: A personal yet sweeping tale of love and the inexorable march of progress. 8.5/10.

IMDB Synopsis: A story of violent love within a time frame spanning from 2001 to 2017.

Taken at face value, Ash is Purest White is a story of two people and their ever-shifting love for each other over the course of about 17 years. but more thoughtfully, the film maps the duo’s trials and tribulations against the backdrop of a rapidly modernizing, expanding, and changing China. Set in three distinct time periods in modern China, Ash is Purest White exposes the viewer to the world’s most ambitious nation’s rapid growth while keeping the story grounded and personal through it’s co-leads.

Set in the rural north in the city of Datong, the story is focused on Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao), the aforementioned couple. Bin is a big fish gangster in a small pond, running a mahjong parlor amongst other small time crookery. Qiao is the daughter of a coal miner, but effortlessly breezes around Bin’s gangster world. Set in 2001, rural Datong is on the cusp of urbanization and expansion but with one foot stuck in the past: A sagging coal mining industry, cheesy western dance clubs (YMCA!), and rural bus routes. The couple’s dreams and aspirations are tied to the expansion when their lives are upended. Being attacked by a rival gang, Qiao saves Bin’s life by firing a handgun, and as a consequence, catches five years in prison.

Upon release, Qiao is confronted with a very different China in 2006. To find Bin, she travels along the Yangtze River where the film puts China’s rapid change front and center via the Three Gorges Dam project. After learning that Bin has a new girlfriend and refuses to see her (in dramatically cowardly fashion), Qiao finds herself penniless and lost, so she does what she does best, and fall back into the gangster lifestyle and grifts until she’s cash rich, in easily the film’s most enjoyable act. After a tense and emotional meeting with Bin, Qiao exits the 2006 segment with a renewed sense of purpose as she makes her way home to the Shanxi province.

As China celebrates the new year in 2018, we find modern day Datong barely recognizable. Shiny new train station, miles of infrastructure, and a shut down coal mine, the area resembles Datong in name only; a scant bit of old world culture peeks out from under its new skin. Mirroring Datong is Qiao, who is now running the Mahjong tables and has been thriving in the underworld. After suffering a stroke, Bin renters Qiao’s life, resentful of what she’s gained and he’s lost. It echoes the feelings of many who balk at China’s inexorable progress toward a more modern (and sometimes Western) culture.

Director Zhangke Jia has crafted a profoundly personal journey to mirror the changes in China’s culture and mindset over the past twenty years. Ash is Purest White is at times slowly and expansively beautiful. At other times it’s violent. And sometimes it’s a little boring. Nonetheless, the film manages to speak to larger forces at play while illustrating how small and intimate relationships are affected by the winds of change.

MVP: Tao Zhao and her stoic face that only minutely move yet portray an ocean of emotions. The film centers on her performance.

Highlights: The brutal street fight in act one. The sweeping vista and wide shots that Director Jia uses to great effect.

Director: Zhangke Jia

Studio: Cohen Media Group // Original release date: March 15, 2019 (USA)