[REVIEW] “Not Her Story: Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White” by Michael Tsang

{Written by Michael Tsang, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Jia Zhangke (director), Ash Is Purest White (Chinese name: 江湖兒女 Jianhu Ernü), 2018. 136 min.

Note: This review contains spoilers.

One of the most influential Chinese independent film directors today, Jia Zhangke turns to the underworld of China’s gangs, or jianghu, in his film Ash Is Purest White (Chinese name: 江湖兒女 Jianhu Ernü). The film portrays the romantic relationship between model Qiao Qiao (played by Zhao Tao) and Guo Bin (played by Liao Fan), a gang leader in Datong in Shanxi province. Alluding to many familiar tropes in Jia’s previous films (the setting of Shanxi or the Three Gorges region, which recalls Still Life [Sanxia Haoren, 2006]; the tribute to Hong Kong and Taiwanese culture in the 80s; the focus on an “ordinary” or marginalised population and their stories), Jia has produced a film that powerfully explores concepts of romance and comradeship (qingyi), but, despite the film’s critical acclaim, does not do justice to the characters portrayed.

The film is divided into three distinct sections. The first part opens in 2001, portraying Guo Bin and his gang’s dealings, ending in a public fight where he and Qiao Qiao are intercepted by gangsters hired by a competitor. With Guo Bin on the point of being killed in the fight, Qiao Qiao saves him by firing his gun, but is sentenced to prison for her troubles. In the second part, set five years later, Qiao Qiao has been released and travels south via the Three Gorges to locate Guo Bin, only to discover that he and some of his fellow gang members have abandoned the gang and are now “out of the box”, no longer directly involved in crime but rather trying to go straight as “businessmen” investing in opportunities in the area (referencing Jia’s Still Life).

At first, Guo Bin does not want to meet Qiao Qiao; ironically, she lures him by reporting a near-rape to none other than the police. She then has her suspicions confirmed: Guo Bin has a new girlfriend. In one of the film’s most romantic scenes, Qiao Qiao is almost convinced by a man she meets on the train to go to Xinjiang with him to start a new life, but decides against it at last minute. In the final part, set another eleven years later, in around 2017, Qiao Qiao picks up Guo Bin, now wheelchair-bound, from the high-speed rail station and brings him back to Datong, where she has opened a mahjong parlour and taken in some of his former subordinates. She arranges for a doctor to examine him, but, unable to cope with his dependent position and loss of respect from his former gangmates, Guo Bin leaves Qiao Qiao once again.

On one level, Jia’s film can be seen as successfully demonstrating that women can equally be a master of jianghu as well, even though the jianghu she chooses to remain has had to adapt to the times. As the film’s English title, Ash Is Purest White, suggests, the “basest” tier of society may as well demonstrate the “purest”, most sublime, qualities. This is nowhere more clearly seen in the character Qiao Qiao, who is the one still clinging onto what jianghu has to offer when others like Bin have moved on. When Bin says, at the end of Part II, that “he is no longer Guo Bin”, this is both a denial of his shady gangster past vis-à-vis his “more legitimate” life in the Three Gorges, and an acknowledgment that gangs have become increasingly difficult to operate as China develops its economy and infrastructure. In this light, Qiao Qiao is portrayed as someone who still clings on to the romanticised notion of jianghu. The jianghu that she returns to Shanxi to create no longer has the Technicolor glamor of the early 2000s—no more discos in 2017—but she does run her own mahjong parlour, taking care of Guo Bin’s former associates. A lesser achievement compared to Bin’s “reign”, true, but she is the Godmother, the one who maintains the brotherhood when big brother is no longer. Zhao Tao delivers an exceptional and authentic performance playing Qiao Qiao as the film’s main character, and captures the audience’s attention throughout.

A deeper analysis, however, reveals an alternative interpretation.

There is no doubt that Guo Bin is very much presented in an emasculated way, especially in the second and third parts. Loss of respect and command from his previous jianghu circles—a combined result of his abandoning the gang, his returning with a physical disability, and the final straw, his reliance on Qiao Qiao’s care and introduction to a doctor—signifies a masculinity long gone. However, that Qiao Qiao is doing well on her own without Guo Bin is only presented on a sub-narrative level as the eleven years between Part II and Part III are skipped, and even though in Part III Qiao Qiao is still frequently on screen, much of the plot revolves around Guo Bin and the chain of events set off by his return. As a film that is explicitly about the “sons and daughters of jianghu” (the literal translation of Jianghu Ernü), it seems strange that nothing is shown about either Guo Bin’s or Qiao Qiao’s lives during the times they are apart. The last straw is when the film ends as he leaves Datong again because he cannot stomach the humiliation, and the audience is left in bewilderment: is there no story about the couple—and especially about Qiao Qiao—meaningful enough to tell after Guo Bin leaves?

The one hint showing that Qiao Qiao could have a story of her own occurs at the end of Part II when she almost goes to Xinjiang with the man she meets on the way back to Shanxi. But here, too, she backs off in the end, perhaps realising that she won’t ever fall for another man again—thus showing the strong feelings she has for Guo Bin, but at the same time also falling back to the jianghu life she knows, only without Guo Bin this time (which the film has not bothered to show). A potential unfulfilled.

That Qiao Qiao is the protagonist gives an impression that the film celebrates female experience in jianghu, but this does not seem to jibe with how the film’s structure validates the audience’s attention to Qiao Qiao always and only through a connection to Guo Bin. In short, she is the main actor of the film, the focus, but the film is not about her or her story. Instead, these are mere episodes of her life when her life becomes entangled with Guo Bin.

It could then be said that what the film aims to portray is, curiously, not any particular character per se, but only the relationship between two of the most elite characters in a gang which nonetheless is the society’s underbelly. Despite spectacular acting and perceptive thematic exploration, Ash Is Purest White falls short of presenting characters as characters.

How to cite: Tsang, Michael. “Not Her Story: Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 03 Aug. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/08/03/purest-white/.

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Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and is Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, with previous academic experiences in Newcastle University, the University of Warwick, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His interests lie in East Asian literatures and popular cultures, as well as postcolonial and world literatures at large. He is the co-editor of Murakami Haruki and Our Years of Pilgrimage (Routledge, 2021). He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. In April 2012, Michael joined Cha’s editorial team as Staff Reviewer. He is a founding co-editor of the academic journal, Hong Kong Studies (Chinese University Press). [Cha Profile]

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