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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Ash is Purest White, Review: Never Love a Gangster

Ash is Purest White, Review: Never Love a Gangster

Ash is Purest White is a tale of unrequited love that flows seamlessly along the backdrop of the socio-political upheavals in China, during 2001-18. It is an ode to old-fashioned love, set amidst gangsters and con-artistes, making two, revolutionary, and highly controversial, observations: gangster mobs are the last vestiges of loyalty and righteousness, and men are incapable of reciprocating women’s sublime love.

Qiao (Zhao Tao) lives in Datong, of North China's Shanxi Province, a mining town plumetting into economic decline, due to falling coal prices, nepotism and high-level corruption. Her boyfriend, Bin’ge (Liao Fan), usually called Bin, is a dashing gangster who operates a taxi service and works as the second-in-command man for a corrupt property developer and night-club owner. Qiao, a no-nonsense woman, works in the same club, over-seeing the gambling den, dance-floor and bar. After his boss is mysteriously murdered, Bin steps into his shoes and finds himself vulnerable to rival hostilities. He is attacked by twin boys with a lead pipe, and his leg is fractured. Although the boys are caught, he lets them go, because they pretend to have attacked the wrong man. Qiao nurses him, till he can walk normally again.

Sometime later, when he is travelling in his car with Qiao, a driver at the wheels, he is again attacked, by a number of scooter-borne young men, who severely beat-up first the driver and then him. To save him from imminent death, Quao pulls out his illegal gun and fires two shots in the air. This dispels the group, but both she and Bin are arrested for possession and firing of an illegal firearm. Qiao makes a fateful decision: she takes the rap, stating that the gun belongs to her.

After five years in gaol, she comes out to find that her world has transformed. On a ferry-boat, a fellow passenger steals all her money. She also finds that her former mafia associates have turned legit, while Bin, who was sentenced to only one year, has found another girl-friend. Qiao searches for a new identity in a changing China, a search that is triggered by a group of street musicians singing about love and commitment, and a con-man on a long-distance train, who wants to recruit people to promote UFO tourism. She sees the Three Gorges Dam, and also, symbolically, a shooting star. Qiao is destined to meet Bin again, if only to face a devastating truth: never love a gangster!

Written and directed by Jia Zhangke (Still Life, A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart; born in Fenyang, Shanxi, China, 1970), the film’s original Mandarin title, jiāng hú ér nǚ, literally means ‘children of the river and lake’, and that line is manifest in a scene wherein the mobsters pour liquor made from the waters of the lakes and seas into a large ceramic bowl and drink from it, in a moment of ritual camaraderie. The English title, Ash is the Purest White, leads us to two scenes near a volcano, where the lovers exchange banter, but where also, for the first time, Bin thrusts a gun into Qiao’s hands and fires a shot, even as she looks the other way. Now, she claims, she has become a jiang hu, a member of the brotherhood of mobsters. She also asks if the volcano is still active and observes something to the effect that “volcanic ash is the purest,” because it emerges from fire. Little does she know then that after smouldering for years, only to turn to ashes at the end, is her inalterable destiny. When they are at the same location again, she is helping him walk without crutches. On both occasions, it is a large, almost barren landscape, and the volcano is always in long shot.

Most naturally, the first sentiments resonating about the film are visceral, bringing repeated lumps to the throat and saline to the eyes. Why does one, who has loved so selflessly and made a supreme sacrifice, have to suffer such a severe heart-break? Why does one, who has nobody to call her own, have to be the victim of a Bible-reading habitual thief, who cleans her up? Why does one, who believes in honesty and righteousness, have to resort to cheating and bluff to keep body and soul together? Why does she, when the first time she is alone, together with a man, a motor-cycle taxi driver, have to be propositioned? Why does she, when she is in the company of the con-man in the train, have to be caressed and hugged, albeit unprotestingly? These elements are tear-jerking, even formulaic, but one has to look beyond, way beyond, to find the allegory, the metaphor and the commentary.

Most men’s feelings, as typified by Bin, would need physical presence of their partners, even contact, and absence makes them vulnerable to straying. Moreover, having lost self-respect and position, Bin falls for another woman who happens to be around and sympathises. Thieves do not discriminate. It matters little to them that the victim might be at her wit’s end. Reading the Bible has a wider connotation. When the train is heading towards the extreme north/north-west, Urumqi is mentioned and the many passengers are shown wearing Muslim caps (China has about 2% Muslim population, partly concentrated near the north-western borders which it shares with several other countries).

Try and recall one of the earliest scenes, in which a borrower is made to swear in the presence of an idol of Lord Guan whether he borrowed the money or not, and within a moment, he admits his guilt. Communism, Christianity, Islam, and idolatry, all have a role to play in contemporary Chinese Society, and if Buddhist Lord Guan arouses the fear of the Almighty in an offender, so be it. (Guan Yu, died 219, was a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei, during the late Eastern Han Dynasty of China. He is worshipped as a Dharma Protecting deity, who helps practitioners with worldly matters, and regarded as a Taoist saint and god of war and martial arts).

When asked whether his UFO tourism enterprise is state-owned or a state-private partnership, the man on the train says it does not matter. In another scene, guards are shown holding a crowd of demonstrators at bay in the heart of a city, a nod to the student protests of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Similar scenes are depicted when Qiao’s father addresses the procession that marches through Datong, to protest against a corrupt, high-ranking mining official.

Outside her cocooned universe of gambling and drinking dens, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and a former jailbird is hardly likely to get a decent job, so conning is the easiest way out. Being a woman and being alone hits her real hard when she is propositioned, and she resolves to meet Bin, by hook or by crook. She is in a trance-like state of mind on the train and tells the raconteur that she has actually seen a UFO. That con man kindles in her the belief that miracles do occur and we see this belief manifesting itself in a shooting star, once she alights from the train at the dead of night.

Jia assembles such a realistic collage of characters, and imparts a character-like feel to Shanxi, probably because he was born there (Fenyang, 1970). Something tells you that this place just has to be real, as do the persons inhabiting it. Taken at face value, the narrative is straight (never mind the seventeen year span), and the millennia-old subject of love and betrayal has little new that he could conjure in terms of screenplay for the big screen. But no, he is not telling you a sad love story. He is telling you a sad story about dying small towns, corruption, the Three Gorges dam which submerged everything in its path for up to 175 metres in height, the indelible memories of Tiananmen Square, where as many as 10,000 protestors could have been gunned down, how power--libido--self-respect can take precedence over transcendent love, how many a married man in China’s upper classes has a mistress…

You are not likely to notice this--and that is in itself a remarkable achievement--the screen-size and the colour of the film change time and again. Starting with about half the screen, in squarish aspect ratio, it covers the full screen later. Likewise, the black and white/monochrome to colour changes occur as smoothly as unfurling silk. There is little in terms of comic relief, or any real entertainment, except two instances of a scantily clad woman doing ballroom dancing and the recurring song about commitment, with a topless young male singer. Well, you could also call Qiao’s attempts at blackmail, targetting strangers by pretending to be the sisters of their mistresses, ‘funny’.

Are men that terrified of commitment? And if they are, do they have good reason to be so terrified? Are they honest? Are they weak? Since the film is told from Qiao’s perspective, all the answers go in her favour. Yet, Qiao is not painted entirely black. Grey, at best.  Morally, the film will be a shocker to those who feel that institutions like the Mafia and night-clubs/casinos/dance-bars are the bane of society. Jia paints them as epitomes of loyalty, righteousness and devotion to duty. An unscrupulous builder and loan shark, Bin’s boss does not move from his modest small town home into one of his own villas because his mother is too old to reconcile to the idea of getting uprooted! Here, I cannot but help quote a famous Urdu couplet, written by the late Ahmed Faraaz and immortalised by the singer, late Mehdi Hassan, ‘Dhoond ujdey huey logon men vafaa key motee, Yeh qhazaaney tujhey mumkin hae qharaabon men milen.’(Seek the pearls of faithfulness among the uprooted, It is possible you may find these treasures among the flawed.)

Husband and wife in real-life, Zhangke and Tao Zhao work together as a great team, and he brings out the best in her. Also a native of Shanxi, Tao Zhao (Mountains May Depart, Shun Li and the Poet), has been married to the director for seven years now. It is not known whether theirs was a childhood romance, but I have this sixth sense that tells me that part of the film’s story refers to her experiences, besides Zhangke’s own.

If anything, Jia is guilty of indulging her on screen. She gets all the sympathy, gets to pose in style near the volcano, strikes another pose after switching off the PA system on which her father is addressing the crowd, takes her own time to react when Bin picks up his fallen gun, gets out of the car and fires two shots like a pro, one with back to camera and another after a 180˚ flip for the benefit of the camera, the back to the camera freeze in the jail and slow turnaround, and more. The only thing she cannot do, in the film, or, rather, refuses to do, is ballroom dancing. That having been said, she is a great actress.

Fan Liao (Black Coal, Thin Ice, The Final Master) has the looks of, and is moulded as, an Italian Mafioso, replete with a moustache. It is always a challenge to portray a physically challenged person, and he does it very well. Serious, silent types like him would behave the way he does. Zheng Xu as the con-man on the train impresses. Good support is provided by Diao Yi’nan and Casper LiAng as the brother-sister duo Lin JiaDong and Lin JiaYan (who is Bin’s second romantic interest; the name means ‘house-bird’). Also in the cast are Jia LiDing as the woman on the boat, ZiJian Dong as a policeman, Yi Zhang and YiBai Zhang as the victims of Qiao’s con-womanning,

Released on the vkaao platform in India (screenings only at PVR cinemas, on private booking basis) by Srinivasan Narayanan, a former director of the International Film Festival of Mumbai and Sanjay Suri, the actor turned distributor, Ash is Purest White runs for 138 minutes (in some listings on the Internet, the length is shown as 136 and 150 minutes) and has been given a For Adults Only exhibition certificate, with some parts cut, which restricts admission to those above 18 years of age. In other countries, the certification varies from no restriction (France) to above 16 (several countries). More an exception than the rule in films that long, the 138 minutes whiz past like the landscape outside Qiao’s train window.

In a slightly lighter vein, the ash could also be a reference to the gazillions of cigarettes and cigars and lighters and matchsticks that ignite the screen after every few shots. Indian government’s statutory warnings about smoking being a killer have had to work overtime at the lower right corner of the frame, sometimes merging with the sub-titles!

Perhaps it needed more than a simple love-story to underscore the tumult that dissenting and protesting Chinese citizens faced in the period under the scanner, which included the 2008 Beijing Olympics. While it is their prerogative to voice their opinion, and eulogise a film that really impresses them, in my humble opinion, hailing Ash is Purest White as an all-time masterpiece might be doing it a disservice, but I have no hesitation in recommending it as a must watch for all serious cinema-buffs. There is little of “feel good” on offer in the movie, but good cinema is not only about feeling good. This is more than good cinema, it is very good cinema.

Rating: *** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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