Movie review: “Ash is Purest White”

February 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

When I get the urge to watch a movie during the pandemic, I usually find one by Googling “Best movies of 20–“, concentrating on recent years, and scan the lists for something I haven’t heard of but that the critics liked. That’s the way I found this one: “Ash is Purest White“, a Chinese drama made in 2018. I’d never heard of it, but it was on many critics’ lists, and Rotten Tomatoes gave it a great overall critics review (click on screenshot to see the site and unanimity of opinion):

The disparity here between the critics’ score and the audience score is likely to rest on the unusual nature of the film. It not only portrays life in a backwater part of China, and a culture unfamiliar to many Americans and Brits, but also is extremely slow-moving compared to most movies (it’s 2 hours and 15 minutes long). There is only a tiny bit of action (some brief violence, despite the advertising with the gun), and no chase scenes. It is a character drama, and its beauty rests on the slow pace and the wonderful acting, especially of the two co-stars Tao Zao (a well known actress married to the director, Jia Zhangke) and Liao Fan, who plays her small-time gangster boyfriend.  In its deliberate pace and revelation of the characters, it’s comparable to Tokyo Story, my second favorite foreign film (after Ikuiru), a film I’ve recommended to many but few seem to like. Both of those films are also movies about character rather than plot, and both are set in postwar Asia. (If you want to see Professor Ceiling Cat’s list of the ten best movies of all time, go here.)

My theory, which is mine, is that modern audiences, weaned on action films with lots of chase scenes, violence, and drama, are baffled by a slower films about character in which not a lot “happens”. But critics still appreciate that style of movie, ergo the film’s high ratings. And in this one I’m definitely on the critics’ side. The film is terrific—a must-see and a tour de force of acting.

After I watched the movie, I read some of the reviews (I never do that before I watch a movie, though I’ll look at the ratings), and I think most critics have missed what I see is the film’s point: the contrast between constancy and change.  The constancy is in the affection of Tao Zao, who plays Qiao the “moll” of Fan, who himself plays Bin, a two-bit crook in the town of Datong in the northern province of Shanxi. The change is that of China itself—a rapid change in the movie’s span of 17 years. I’ll try not to give spoilers (and if you don’t want to know anything about the plot, skip the next bit).

As I said, the film spans 17 years beginning in 2001, when Datong is a smallish town.  As a self-styled tough guy, Bin gets a gun—highly illegal in China. His relationship with Qiao seems distant, but they’re clearly involved.  During an altercation, Bin is attacked by wannabee gangsters, and Qiao fires the gun to chase off his assailants. She’s arrested and, to protect Bin, refuses to admit that it was Bin’s gun. She’s sent to prison for five years.

When she gets out, she returns, looking for Bin and assuming he’s waited for her. He hasn’t: he has a new girlfriend. They part after one of the most affecting scenes in the movie—when Qiao is determined to make Bin tell her explicitly that their relationship is over. It’s at this point that you realize how wonderful the acting is. The scene takes a long time, few words are exchanged, and the emotions are played out largely through Tao Zao’s facial expressions. It’s one thing to act with movement and dialogue, but an entirely different matter to mesmerize the audience with one’s facial expressions alone. And in that way she runs through an entire gamut of emotions in this long scene. She a stunning actress.

They part for many years, with Qiao encountering many bizarre characters, including a travel agent who asks her to join him in his venture to create “UFO tourism”.  Eventually she and Bin reunite, but his circumstances have changed for the worse. Yet despite her saying that she has “no feelings” for Bin, she stays with him to the movie’s end, pushing him about in a wheelchair and resigned to her life as a cook and boss of a gambling den back in Datong. He is the one who eventually leaves. The entire time, thRough all the changes in China (symbolized by a boat trip through the Three Gorges, soon to be destroyed by a dam) and the changes in Bin, she remains, as always, faithful in her affection and self-sacrificing, yet also strong.

The plot as I described it may not excite you, but I recommend the film highly. Its attraction is in Qiao’s character and her portrayal by Tao Zao. You can’t take your eyes off her. Liao Fan also gives a fine performance.

The film was included by Barack Obama on his “favorite films of 2019” list:

I’ve seen “Ford vs. Ferrari”, “The Irishman”, and “Parasite”, and do intend to see “Marriage Story”. If Obama liked “Ash is Purest White,” maybe you will, too!

The English-subtitled trailer:

You can see a 38-minute YouTube discussion by the director here; it was filmed when the movie was previewed at Lincoln Center.

The movie poster for the release in China:

The comments below, of course, are the place for you to recommend good movies you’ve seen recently: it’s a useful feature for all of us.

36 thoughts on “Movie review: “Ash is Purest White”

  1. Does it have a happy ending? I don’t need details about the ending, but just want to know if it’s a happy ending. Thanks!

  2. It not only portrays life in a backwater part of China, and a culture unfamiliar to many Americans and Brits, but also is extremely slow-moving compared to most movies (it’s 2 hours and 15 minutes long). There is only a tiny bit of action (some brief violence, despite the advertising with the gun), no chase scenes.

    Reckon it wouldn’t score too high on the car-chase, pints-of-blood-spilt, and female-breasts-exposed point system employed by the old Texas drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs.

  3. Intriguing pick.

    Kurosawa’s piéce-de-resistance (AFAIK) is Dreams – and it too is so abstract and expressionistic and perhaps *challenging* that it is the one film I admire that I fell asleep in the middle of. One day perhaps I’ll be able to study it again, being a Kurosawa fan.

    TL;DR : Kurosawa’s Dreams so slow it is the one film you’ll love during which you’ll fall asleep.

  4. DO see Marriage Story. I’ve seen both Ash and MS, and MS is, at least for North Americans, a far more affecting story, just because of our familiarity with the cultural norms at play. It too is a character piece – the most telling incident is where Adam Driver sings a song.
    P.S. It has a sortofa kindofa happy ending.

  5. I recently saw and can decidedly recommend The Assassin (2015) by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Also a beautiful, slow-moving drama with lots of space for moral ambiguity and character development. They really did their homework on that one (period costumes, interior design). On a side note, how can one not like Ikiru?

  6. Totally agree about “Ash…”. I am also enthusiastic about, but can’t seem to get anyone to watch, “Yi Yi” from 2000, a great action-free character study that belongs on your list.

    1. “Yi Yi” is a magnificent film. For those leery of slow films, it’s not glacially paced either. I hope you have also seen ” A Brighter Summer Day,” an earlier masterpiece by the same director, Edward Yang, which the Criterion Collection issued on Blu-Ray a couple years ago. At four hours it’s even longer than Yi Yi, but has the span and richness of a novel.

  7. It’s not only the action movies that set a taste for fast-paced movies, but also comedies. Modern comedies tend to be so thoroughly packed with jokes that old comedies can seem very slow in comparison. It’s hard to get kids interested in watching them!

  8. I liked Ford v. Ferrari. I found the Irishman boring after a while (didn’t finish it). Haven’t seen Parasite yet.

    I like some slow-moving movies a lot. Depends on the movie. I have noticed that movies from the 1970s now usually (not always) seem really slow-paced to me.

    I don’t like super-hero movies. I do like well-made action movies (e.g. the Bourne series).

    My favorite movie of recent years (not so recent now) might be the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.
    I also really liked Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born. (I’ve seen them all except the original, from the 1930s; and I like the Cooper version the best. Lady Gaga: That girl can sing! I’d never heard her before the movie.)

    I’ve seen lots of enjoyable movies. I should write down very brief reviews. I can’t even bring up a serious list in my head! But if you ask me if I’ve seen a movie, I can tell you.

  9. I watched Ma Rainey about a week and half ago. I also finally got around to watching the Coens’ 2018 western anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I’ve also watched some documentaries recently, one about the riots after the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King, LA 92, another about the US prison system, 13th, and a pair about musicians — The Other One, about The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, and Keith Richards: Under the Influence. All first-rate.

    The new release I’m most looking forward to seeing is One Night in Miami.

    1. I used to see the Dead any chance I could get…I lived in California in the late 80’s, so I got a lot of chances. There was a persistent rumor that Weir had a thing for underage girls. I wonder if that’s mentioned or hinted at in the rockumentary? Probably just a rumor. Isn’t The Other One on Netflix? I’m not signed up at the moment…with Amazon Prime, Disney, Apple, Hulu etc., I’m up to my ears in new movies and series. With Netflix, I’ll need to add another half lifetime. 🙂

      1. In the Weir doc, there was an upfront discussion about the groupies lined up outside the door of his bedroom, inasmuch as he was considered the band’s “heartthrob” (not that he had much competition for that title from Mr. Garcia or Mr. Lesh or Mr. Pigpen). I recall one mention regarding underage girls, but it was of the no-can-do variety. He certainly didn’t admit to any unlawful carnal knowledge of minors.

        In the Keith Richards doc, OTOH, there was an acknowledgement that the subject may have occasionally partaken of controlled substances. 🙂

        1. Thanks for the Weir info. I want to see that doc. I think Pigpen might have had a fling with Janis Joplin, or maybe they were just drinking buddies.

          Hard to believe KR’s still kickin’. And whenever I hear him talk, he’s funny, engaging and lucid. Talk about a healthy constitution.

    2. Saw One Night in Miami in September from TIFF ( virtually). It wax good, but imho not as fantastic as all the fuss being made would have you think, Nomadland was the best we saw.

  10. Very recently watched The Irishman, and thought it terrific.
    I’m not watching much now, although lately I’ve been appreciating The Haunting of Hill House. I do think there are some flaws, but its scary as hell, and what I really like are the actors and the camera work. Its just a pleasure to watch how they do super long single cut scenes where the characters are saying stuff, reacting to spooky events, and meanwhile the camera is moving around and letting the tension build and build. The kid actors are also absolutely terrific.

  11. “Your Name (Kimi no Na wa)” 2016, written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, a Japanese anime feature of extraordinary beauty and a narrative of real emotional weight and complexity. It has displaced Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” as the highest grossing anime of all time worldwide. I always watch anime in the original Japanese with English subtitles and had to watch this three times before I could get a handle on the very intricate storyline. Can’t recommend “Your Name” highly enough.

  12. I recently watched Jia Zhangke’s 2013 film A Touch of Sin (also starring Zhao Tao ). The film is a set of four stories loosely interconnected. The individual stories are based on actual incidents that happened in contemporary China- all of them tragic and violent. It was an engrossing film, disturbing, and beautifully filmed…the acting was flawless. I highly recommend it, but it’s not for viewers averse to violence; the violence isn’t gratuitous, but it is very realistic, and very bloody.

    Thanks for the movie recommendation, I’ll check it out; I really enjoy contemporary Asian movies. I thought Parasite was amazing as well.

  13. Tokyo Story is, as I’m hardly the first to claim, one of the greatest films ever made, a profound and technically innovation meditation on age and change. Ozu’s films are often leisurely, painfully so by current action-demanding standards, but they’re almost always enormously thoughtful and affecting. A more contemporary film of that standard is Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, technically and psychologically brilliant, beautiful, and enormously moving in its quiet restraint.

  14. With everyone else making suggestions for truly good movies, I feel compelled to make at least one suggestion for a truly awful movie. So awful that it’s fun to watch, if you’re in that kind of mood. My daughter has a thing for goofy movies and one night, looking for something to watch, we came across this and she made us watch it.

    The VelociPastor

    It’s on Amazon Prime. This is the blurb.

    “After losing his parents, a priest travels to China, where he inherits a mysterious ability that allows him to turn into a dinosaur. At first horrified by this new power, a prostitute convinces him to use it to fight crime. And ninjas.”

    I mean, with a blurb like that, how can you not click through?

    The final fight scene is awesome.

  15. I’ve stuck to comfort and familiarity during this shitstorm. I’ve enjoyed the movies of my youth, all three original Star Wars movies, Spaceballs, E.T., Back to the Future I,II,III, Gremlins, The Goonies, and a few others. I don’t need anything intellectually or emotionally challenging. I do live foreign film but life’s been challenging enough lately. I’ve preferred the film equivalent to Ritz crackers, Easy Cheese, and Mountain Dew, my preferred snack to accompany Spaceballs as an 11 year old.

  16. My girlfriend and I have been doing the exact same thing with the best movies of recent years and just watched this movie about two weeks ago. We were discussing whether Chinese movies require official approval from the government and if so, what message the government thought this movie conveyed. I thought maybe Qiao represented the Chinese Communist Party and Bin represented the Chinese people/nation. I thought it was significant that Bin starts out using a Lord Guan statue to resolve a dispute in gambling hall early on, but then later Qiao is running the same club using high tech surveillance.

  17. I applaud PCC’s good taste—I saw “Ash is Purest White” back in 2019 (that distant age when you could still watch films in a theater!) and also thought it was excellent. I don’t have much to add, because PCC aptly described the heart of the film.

    I don’t have any streaming services and prefer to see new movies in the theater, so I didn’t see many new films in 2020. But here are the 10 best old films I saw for the first time last year, in no real order:

    “The Gunfighter” (1950, directed by Henry King). A classic Western but also an revisionist one; Gregory Peck plays a gunfighter everyone wants to test themselves against.

    “Häxan” aka “Witchcraft Through the Ages” (1922, Benjamin Christensen). Ostensibly an essay film on witches during the middle ages, though the center of the film is a bonkers depiction of fun with demons and how to literally kiss Satan’s ass.

    “Seven Footprints to Satan” (1929, Benjamin Christensen). Hard to find in good quality (avoid the crummy copies on YouTube!) horror-comedy, a perverse piss-take on the Haunted House sub-genre.

    “The Wolf House” (2018, Joaquin Cociña, Cristóbal León). Hard-to-describe Chilean stop-motion animated feature; slow and frequently psychedelic in its effects.

    “Moby Dick” (1956, John Huston). I read Melville’s book for the first time last year. The film of course can’t capture all of its interior meanings, but it’s impressively staged with real conviction. Gregory Peck is miscast as Ahab but does his damnedest.

    “Invention for Destruction” (1958, Karel Zeman). Dazzling live-action/animation adaptation, not only of Jules Verne but also Gustave Doré! The sort of movie that makes you say “How did they do that?” every five minutes.

    “The Family Game” (1983, Yoshimitsu Morita). Twisted black comedy about a bourgeois Japanese family turned upside down when a tutor takes charge of its underachieving younger son. The final 10 minutes are the family dinner to end all family dinners.

    “The Gang’s All Here” (1943, Busby Berkeley). Berkeley’s dance routines were already feverish in black and white; in color they’re LSD trips. The opening features Carmen Miranda and a hat that will blow either your mind or your eyeballs.

    “Memories of Murder” (2003, Bong Joon-Ho). By the director of “Parasite.” An astringent deconstruction of the serial killer genre, disposing of its reliable cliches and underlying sense of security. An apt film to watch in a year that shook many people’s faith in the police.

    “Phantom of the Paradise” (1974, Brian De Palma). A rock-era musical take on Phantom of the Opera. Paul Williams provides songs that pastiche everything from 50s rock’n’roll to surf rock and hard rock. De Palma provides invigorating camera work and a sense of paranoia.

  18. A recent film on some critic’s best lists: First Cow (slow pace, character driven, an earlier period in the expansion of the American Northwest) and an older favorite of mine: The Station Agent. Have you seen it?

  19. Older movies are indeed much slower paced: they’ll let a phone ring 5 times before picking it up, follow somebody around a room for EVERY step. I find I don’t have the time. THOUGH – if you watch on youtube you can speed up the action and click through the long looks…

  20. I watched it last night and enjoyed it thoroughly. And I kept thinking as I watched that there is more to China than I realized. Thanks for the recommendation.

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