In “Ash Is Purest White,” Chinese writer-director Jia Zhangke tells a gangster story that seems, at first, to hold out the promise of slow-burning revenge. But despite the volcanic metaphor of the film’s title, it’s a tale characterized not by violent release, but by a steady — and ultimately compassionate — spirit of resolve.
Set in China, the action of “Ash” spans 17 years and covers three distinct time periods, beginning with footage Jia shot in nightclubs and factories in 2001. This section establishes life in the so-called jianghu underworld of Chinese triads, or gangs — a milieu that is generally defined by its strict code of honor among thieves. Yet as the story gets underway, some of the younger thugs, desperate for power, have begun to lash out at more senior gang leaders like Bin (Liao Fan). By contrast, Bin’s girlfriend, Qiao (Zhao Tao), is so devoted to him that she takes the fall for him, serving time for possession of an illegal gun — one he gave her — after she refuses to give him up.
The movie’s second act begins in 2006, as Qiao is being released from prison. Unfortunately for her, Bin didn’t wait around, as she had hoped. Without money or connections, Qiao is left to fend for herself.
As an actress, Zhao has appeared in eight of Jia’s narrative features, beginning with his 2000 drama “Platform.” If you saw her magnetic portrayal of a sex worker who embarks on a spree of violence in the 2013 thriller “A Touch of Sin,” you might expect her character here to meet Bin’s betrayal with her own form of brutal retribution. But the reference to purity in this film’s title is, in fact, a nod to forgiveness.
The film’s original title, in Chinese, translates to “Sons and Daughters of the Jianghu,” suggesting a more straightforward account of gangland culture. But the poetic English title is taken from a scene in which Qiao and Bin discuss a dormant volcano. It’s a metaphor that never erupts — a constant reminder of seething passions kept in check, all for the sake of an underworld code that, in the end, only Qiao has the decency to honor.
In the hands of another actress, the character of Qiao might have come across as a doormat. But Zhao’s coolly expressive face and emotional resourcefulness make it clear that this is a woman who can take care of herself. By the third act, set in 2018, Qiao is also taking care of a now-crippled Bin. If this seems like a setup for a delayed comeuppance, in fact it’s an unusual expression of self-sacrifice — one that can be read as a metaphor for a nation’s atonement. (The Chinese government displaced more than a million people in the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the Three Gorges region, where part of this film is set.) In Jia’s other films, when characters leave home in search of better prospects, they do, more often than not, come back. Home, after all, is home.
For Jia also, “Ash Is Purest White” represents a homecoming of sorts. After the violence and delirious camerawork of “A Touch of Sin,” and the pop sensibility of “Mountains May Depart” — his two most recent films — the director has returned to the style of his earlier films, with a tone that is more subdued and a pacing that is more patient.
There’s a character who prefers train travel to airplanes; this allows him, as he explains it, to see what’s around him close up, rather than from a distance. “Ash” may not hit the dizzying heights of “Sin” but, compared with “Mountain,” it’s a far more consistent and satisfying ride.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains graphic violence and strong language. In Mandarin with subtitles. 136 minutes.