The theory of ‘Chekhov’s gun’ is that if the weapon is introduced in Act 1 of a work of art, then it must be used later. It’s an idea so ingrained in our heads as movie-goers, that the principle serves as a barometer for the storm slowly brewing in our psyche, wondering just when and where the weapon will re-appear and alter the fortunes of the characters for good.
Asian filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Jia Zhangke are experts at it. Their films aren’t necessarily action movies, but patient moral dramas about large families or groups of people weathering social, spatial or cultural upheaval. The fact that, sometimes, these people are gangsters … or girl friends of gangsters … or kids wanting to play act like gangsters … doesn’t make much of a difference. Their films are more whisper than bang, but they use the impending violence of the bang to startling effect.
In Jia Zhangke’s latest epic, Ash Is Purest White, the gun is introduced early on when mid level crime boss Bin (Fan Liao) settles a dispute between thugs in his group arguing over a loan payment. A statue of a revered god is brought out to make the men swear upon, where one of them admits his fault and agrees to pay back what he borrowed. Simpler times, being the year 2000.
But ultimately, Ash Is Purest White doesn’t belong to boss Bin and his group of swaggering henchman, but instead to his loyal girlfriend Qiao, played tremendously Zhangke’s current muse Tao Zhao. The way she struts around Bin and his gang in mahjong parlors or the cool nonchalance she parlays as a young duo casually perform a formal dance in the midst of a techno club (just one of the many wonderful dance sequences filmmaker Zhangke always manages to insert in his works), catapult Qiao as the film’s staunch center.
She ultimately takes it over in the second and third parts of the film when, after being banished to prison for five years after saving Bin’s life during a gang war, she re-emerges in a China that’s facing climactic change. She also faces a personal change, finding Bin has gone missing and possibly taken up with another woman. Not to be dismissed so easily, Ash Is Purest White turns interior as Qiao wanders her old haunts, searching not only for Bin, but for a semblance of the past she’s been expelled from.
Like so many of his other magnificent films, filmmaker Zhangke places a personal story against the backdrop of the larger issue of his home country’s epileptic growth in the future. Some of the locations are the same as well. In her return trip home fresh from prison, Qiao takes a ferry across the Three Rivers Gorge, a landscape monument built upon the flooded remnants of urban renewal visited so strongly in Zhangke’s Still Life (2006). Qiao’s home of the Shanxi Province has been a common setting for the filmmaker since his early film, Pickpocket (1997). And the idea of someone’s personal facade chaffing against impending western encroachment is the key idea behind Zhangke’s films for over 20 years now, most strikingly rendered in his 2008 masterpiece 24 City and critical calling card Unknown Pleasures and Platform in the early aughts.
But even though his latest film follows a familiar pattern of themes and ideas, it’s no less a great film. Carried by Tao Zhao, she says so much by saying so little and the rhythms of Zhangke’s filmmaking style — part pensive long takes mixed with short edits of strong exposition — make Ash Is Purest White a distinct pleasure.
Also distinct is the film’s subliminal passage of time, unfolding over a period of eighteen years. Whether Qiao ever finds Bin again becomes silly fodder compared to the ravages of time. Perhaps Zhangke’s most astute comment on modernization comes towards the end of the film when the two lowly mob guys who argued over payment in the opening of the film again become embroiled in a dispute. This time, their heated disagreement is not met with a zen god statue, but a variety of cell phones popping up behind them to observe (and not intervene) their escalating tempers. How times have changed, indeed. For Qiao (and Zhangke) getting to this technologically impassive point becomes the greatest sorrow of all.
Ash Is Purest White opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, March 29 at the Landmark Magnolia.