It’s always an odd feeling when you’re completely out of step with your colleagues about a film. It’s rare that I’m one of the only ones not to like something everyone else loves, but here we are. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Ash Is Purest White in the least, I just couldn’t quite understand what the fuss was all about. There’s some gorgeous cinematography (from DP Eric Gautier), a terrific lead performance, and some genuinely moving moments. There’s also some very odd choices, poor pacing, a bloated running time, and a sense that there’s a few too many right turns. It’s an interesting film, just not quite one I’d recommend to you.
The movie is a crime drama at times, a romance at times, and apparently a comedy at others. Labeled a tragicomedy set in part within the ranks of a criminal underworld, it focuses as much on melodramatic romance as anything. We begin by meeting the wily Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her mobster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan) as they stake their claim to gang turf against rivals and upstarts in the year 2001. That’s jus the start, however. Utilizing a three part structure, this story plays out over many years. Jia Zhang-ke writes and directs, with supporting players including Xu Zheng, Casper Liang, Feng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan, Zhang Yibai, Ding jiali, Zhang Yi, Dong Zijian, and more. Lim Giong composed the score, while the cinematography is by the aforementioned Eric Gautier.
Again, the flick is not bad in the least. If I find it flawed, it’s not due to a lack of ambition. Filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke is going for it here. Frankly, Ash Is Purest White could have worked with a more cohesive focus. Zhao Tao is certainly doing strong work. It just often zigs when you wish it would have zagged. As the narrative turns its screws, instead of pulling it in, it actually began to push me away. The slow burn spread out over 136 minutes just milks it too deliberately. I never truly cared, even if I wanted to, which is a real shame. The effort level is there, just not the full execution level.
Ash Is Purest White has had the benefit of playing to film festival crowds, which often can find this sort of thing right up their alleys. Not that length is indicative of quality, but slowly paced two hour and sixteen minute epics are par for the course at places like the New York Film Festival, where I saw it last year. Here in more general release, it will have a hard time finding as strong a fan base. Outside of a fest, it enters a different marketplace. I remain decidedly in the minority, critic wise, but when it comes to audience members, things may be more evenly split. Time will tell, I suppose?
As of this weekend, Ash Is Purest White has opened in limited theatrical release, so it’s available to check out right now if you so desire. There are things to recommend about it, just not the full package overall, at least in this humble critics opinion. Zhao Tao delivers an excellent lead performance, fans of Jia Zhang-ke and his work may appreciate more than I did, and just overall adventurous international filmmakers could find it to be terrific. It just ever so slightly missed the mark for me. Your mileage may vary, so feel free to give it a look and make up your own mind. After all, I’m admittedly in the minority here with this take…
Ash Is Purest White is out now in limited release and can currently be seen in theaters!