The first 15 minutes of ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE shows the difference between China and the western world. Everyone is smoking in the train that gos into the city. Smoking is still allowed everywhere in 2001, China. When Qiao arrives at a mah-jong parlour. she hits several men who tease her hard on the back. Hitting is tolerated. A debt argument in the parlour results in a firearm pulled out and pointed at the debtor. This is clearly a China or country one is unfamiliar with, which would make a good intriguing story for a film. The first half of the film is set in 2001 and the second half in 2006 after Qiao has served a 5-year jail sentence for firing an illegal gun. She did it to protect her gangster boyfriend, who leaves her when she gets out of jail.
The story follows Qiao, a strong willed woman who survives the changing environment of cultural progress and her relationship changes. Qiao never break down. The film begins in Shanxi, a dying coal town, where Qiao, a modern, feisty local beauty spends her time with her boyfriend, Guo Bin, a local gang boss. Qiao takes care of her father, who insists on fighting for the coal workers’ rights, although in an embarrassing fashion. Qiao is not Bin’s woman, as she carries herself as an equal among gangsters. When a group of young thugs starts making noise in the town, the clash with Bin’s gang is inevitable, and in the film’s most violent scene, Qiao ends up saving her boyfriend by shooting a gun, in a series of events that lead her to prison.
Five years later, and during the fourth phase in the evacuation of the Three Gorges Dam Project area, Qiao is released and tries to reconnect with Bin, who is is avoiding her.
ASH is a female dominated picture. The protagonist, Qiao is a survivor. When she is robbed, she pursues and cares her thief and retrieves the stolen I.D. and money. When sex affronted by a motorcyclist, she steals his bike. The film is told from Qiao’s point of view.
Jia’s sprawling film can hardly be classified as a particular type of genre. It is a character study while the protagonist undergoes changes in her life as society progresses as well. New cities have sprung up and adapting is difficult. Jia’s shows that one cannot always control destiny. Qiao and Bin begins as a decent couple, not overtly loving but not in an abusive relationship either. Bin’s gangster connections lead him to trouble. One can see and pity Qiao. She loves him and sacrifices 5 years of her life for the man she loves, spending it in prison and still helping him along when Bin loses everything while becoming a cripple. One can see Bin’s bitterness. Bin also cheats on Qiao with another woman. “I don’t hate you. I do not have any feelings for you,” Qiao tells Bin at the end.
The film’s message is revealed during early in the film. Bin tells Qiao, “Enjoy the moment.”
Jia’s film is never short of surprises. The surprises propel the narrative and are not without reason. One of these involves Qiao on a train where she meets, by chance a loud man trying to recruit others for his UFO-tourism company. “Yes, I have seen one.” Qiao quips.
ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE is a moving story, one so deep in emotional content that it should keep audiences fully glued to the characters and the story.