This review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage on 11/10/2018.
When is an epic not an epic? When nothing of note ever seems to happen. Jia Zhangke’s latest film has all the makings of an epic – it spans over 17 years, encompasses multiple genres, makes use of some of China’s most stunning backdrops, and runs at nearly two and a half hours – but never uses any of these elements to tell a compelling story. Ash is Purest White certainly has ambition, but in the end disappoints by being mostly boring.
Following almost two decades in the life of the mob-connected Zhao Ciao (Zhao Tao), Ash never really commits to being either a romance or a gangster movie. After taking the rap on a firearms possession charge for her bigshot boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao), Zhao goes to prison for five years only to emerge into a China that has forgotten her and that she barely recognises.
The spectre of crony capitalism haunts the film, and it’s in this political field that Ash packs a punch, but it never extends the same power to any of its emotional beats or action moments – characters’ relationships are thinly sketched and a large-scale brawl that caps off the first act just looks silly.
Jia does do a great job of capturing the surreal vastness of China, and there’s an old-school glamour to the visuals and, especially, the costumes that’s great, but these successes are just thin bandages over some more fundamental failings.
Everything is very low-energy and the most obviously dramatic moments in Zhao’s life – her time in various prisons and then a subsequent rise to power in the underworld – are completely skipped over by the time jumps.
As the tiring epilogue drags on and on, adding very little to what we’ve already seen, Ash goes quite a way past wearing out its welcome.
CAST: Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi’nan Diao
DIRECTOR: Jia Zhangke
WRITER: Jia Zhangke
SYNOPSIS: A story of violent love within a time frame spanning from 2001 to 2017.