How do you live? It is question that for Ash Is Purest White, Jia Zhangke’s latest feature, begins in 2001 and in Datong triad, led by Guo Bin (Lao Fan), and his moll and closest confidant Qiao (Zhao Tao). To them, the answer seems obvious: it is in Bin, as their leader, who steeps Qiao and his ‘brothers’ in the way of the Jianghu, a secession from everyday existence composed of its own system of respect and exchange with an emphasis on close fraternal bonds.
Yet it is not strictly traditional. Like in all of Jia’s films, pop culture is as vital as breathing. This is true for worlds conjured by many other filmmakers but there are only a few like Jia who explore the ritualization of pop. People not only play and repeat certain songs but repeat them again and again until they reverberate like reveries and sit side by side, both complementary and incongruously, with more traditional forms of ritual such as the shrine over which a dispute is resolved and the funeral of an elder brother, which is capped off with a performance by the dearly departed’s favourite pair of ballroom dancers. This adds another piece atop the pop culture totem pole: the influence of the West on contemporary Chinese culture, a topic that Jia has tackled in the direct yet spare use of Pet Shop Boy’s ‘Go West’ in his previous feature, Mountains May Depart (2015), and through a more extensive confrontation in his second feature Platform (2000), which sees a travelling cultural troupe go from playing patriotic songs to burning out on a variety act that amalgamates punk rock, electro pop and go-go girls.
This makeshift form of decoupage, composed of slightly disharmonious elements all piled on top of one another, is a reflection on the unnatural way that western culture was introduced to the mainland, in which modes and personages who in their original countries appeared and accumulated over many decades, all came in the one wave that broke the cultural embargo at the end of the 20th century. This phenomenon initially manifests in Ash Is Purest White in a form of smouldering critique, as the first thing we hear after the prologue and the opening titles flash is the portentously slow drum roll that starts ‘A Man Should Better Himself’ which was first heard in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China (1991), which is perhaps popular Chinese cinema’s definitive depiction of western imperialism.
Yet apart from the latter usage, when western pop does appear it is as but one ingredient in the melting pot that is Bin and the gang’s conception of being Jianghu. So we get The Village People’s ‘YMCA’, played both once and twice for exuberance’s sake, as well a more significant — and local — example, Sally Yeh’s theme for The Killer (1989), nabbed from the John Woo film, which — along with Hong Kong actioners in general — Jia is not only openly referencing but actively drawing from as he absorbs and rearranges its balletic visual style and extravagant emotionality for the purposes of crafting a world that for Qiao and Ben is furnished with their love, their commitment to Jianghu and the latter’s remit of living on their own terms.
The utopia won’t last but while it does it bends the screen and mise-en-scène to fit the characters’ extravagant emotionality, as Jia shoots this first act — with Olivier Assayas regular Eric Gautier replacing Jia regular Yu Lik Wai for the whole picture — mostly in hand-held and in close-ups, emphasizing, along with a warm colour palette of deep reds, blues and greens, the jubilation of the mah-jong and dance scenes. Outside of their revelry, this is a group, and a film, that is initially fuelled with dramatically romantic gestures. If Bin puts an unlit cigarette between his lips or if he needs a cigar cutter, five hands shoot into frame, cartoonishly quick, with lighters lit or knives that they pile high on the table in front of him. Yet Qiao outdoes them all as she’s propelled into making the most costly gesture of all, an act that gets her arrested for the use of an illegal weapon. The film drifts into its second act by placing Qiao in stasis and waking her up in a personal post-apocalypse. For the world, her lover and Jianghu have passed her by during the five years she spent incarcerated.
The loss is reflected in Zhao’s performance, which from her last day in prison to the very end is muted but more richly modulated, as we can see in the tiniest movements of her eyes and mouth that she is flitting from grief, anger and introspection. The film’s relationship with music also undergoes a change that is not exactly in tune with Zhao’s performance but does comment on it. For if the glamorous excess of the Jianghu is gone, so too have its anthems. In their place play a bunch of amateurs, such as a street band; a three piece outfit whose sloppy presentation — an out of tune singer, poorly dyed floppy hair and a lead guitar that explodes with feedback — jars with the sugary subject of the song: undying love. Not only does this song come to Qiao at the wrong moment, it is like a reminder of what the things they worshipped and performed must have really looked like, as opposed to how they felt, and so it becomes a wake-up call; the beginning of a long journey towards recuperation and evolution.
Though she’s not alone. Jia himself is also doing a spot of salvaging. First in a shot plucked from his 2002 feature Unknown Pleasures, and then a second and much more significant guest appearance in the form of a recreation of Jia’s 2006 feature Still Life, as Qiao’s travails involves taking a ferry up to and through Fengije and The Three Gorges region while wearing the same yellow shirt, wielding the same crinkly water bottle and occupying the same year, 2006. All to the tune of a reprise of that film’s ululating theme, composed by Lim Giong, who provides an ominously airy score for this film as well. This aspect of Jia’s, the tendency to examine and repurpose elements from his body of work, is not an empty exercise in self-reference but a concerted attempt to address how certain problems persist in modern Chinese life.
The architectonics of industrialisation is too big a matter to close after a single movie, underlying the displacement of towns around the Three Gorges (the subject of Still Life) and propelling the economic and social difficulties that are seeded in the first half of this movie (the value of coal is dropping and wide-spread emigration to the oil fields in distant Xinjiang are the results). Both instances are tied together by a reappearance of one of the strangest images to grace a Jia Zhangke production, the UFO that shot across the sky in Still Life, an unreality commenting on the exceedingly surreal, but unavoidable, reality, of having your home and town torn down and submerged, as if they never existed. In Ash Is Purest White, it serves as the same metaphor but Jia takes that extra step by following it up with a shot of the cosmos, an infinity of complexity, then match cuts to an equally overwhelming aerial shot of a train track, jutting up like a varicose vain and stretching along the cracked, soon to be plumbed, earth of Xinjiang. This clot of modernity whose paths, we know, lead either back on the return train to Datong or full steam ahead to Xinjiang and away from the community which Jia has already outlined in the collectivist first act and the aching lack of the second, is essential.
Yet that Qiao is even on this journey is remarkable. Regardless of whether she finds Bin or not, she has emerged from the detritus of the first part, penniless and abandoned, learned, through her sheer resourcefulness, how to survive like a Jianghu, which includes paying her way by expertly blackmailing rich dolts, who as capitalists — and therefore the mainstream — are the opposite of the Jianghu. She is not totally removed from the vast articulations of capital that underpin everything, yet her independence, when compared to the destitution and disempowerment that Zhao Tao’s other iterations are concluded with, becomes a gesture more potent than any of the previous rituals or the men who harboured them. Even in the midst of a darkly ambiguous ending, she has managed to reconcile, or even redefine, the supposed opposition between being Jianghu and surviving in a consumerist society, as an extension, or mirror, of Jia’s constant concern: the conflict between tradition and modernity, which destroys most but like the definition of Jianghu itself — an ancient term later transformed by various organisations and genre cinema — can be made movingly flexible.