Qiao (played by Tao Zhao) a gangster’s girlfriend in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi, dreams of an immutable kind of love, the one that defies and lasts. Her and her boyfriend seem on the periphery of society, like dark angels, hovering nearby. She bides her time, even though she doesn’t embrace the lifestyle fully, and, after a violent incident involving him (Bin, played by Fan Liao), instead of turning on him she goes to jail, for five years, doing the longer sentence in lieu of him. What happens when she gets out is like a cautionary tale, a life, and dreams, shattered, a wanting, told against a backdrop of a China that’s changing all the while embracing tradition.
“Ash” is a drama in four chapters, with lots to unpack. The first one is expository, it’s the world of the protagonists and their nascent romance. The second is the inevitability of downfall, resulting in the aforementionned prison stay. A reunion occurs in the third part, fueled by an obsession with rekindling the sensations, and the life, that the first part afforded them. In the last part, life has damaged their bodies and minds, but affection and sentiment is alive once again.
Qiao, an unbroken female protagonist who doesn’t waiver in the face of defeat, even if the price to pay for this is loneliness. “Ash” is an exploration of melancholy and of the future, with sweeping views of this formidable country that is China. Long personal history arcs and the evolving passions and personalities of both characters provide the film’s fiber.
Zhangke Jia focuses his camera on characters who live in a tragic and hostile environment where hatred and love circle one another.
Whether it’s with “Shan he gu ren” (“Mountains may depart”) or “Tian zhu ding” (“A touch of sin”) Zhangke Jia thus continues on his exploration of this China where Westernization, capitalism and tradition marry. It’s like a guided tour where, like in Qiao and Bin’s relationship, the past figures highly but the past has to be swept aside in order to get a better view of the future. This is one of his best films yet!
This film premiered at the 2018 Cannes Festival (read everything about the Cannes Festival here)
“Ash is the purest white” comes out this Friday.