When you hear that a film’s premise is ‘romantic gangster epic set over a nearly 20 year time frame’, a safe assumption seems like, at the very least, it will be an eventful story. Yet, here is Ash is Purest White to prove such predictions very wrong. Never settling into one genre and keeping thrills and emotions at arm’s length throughout, the new film from Zhangke Jia is a hugely disappointing bore. Running at nearly two and a half hours, it’s a film that seems to be unimpressed with itself, every character involved simply going through the motions as the audience’s patience is tested.
Our protagonist is the mob-connected Zhao Ciao (Zhao Tao), a classy moll who ends up taking the rap for a firearms charge for the sake of her bigshot boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao) and spending five years in prison. When she emerges, it’s into a China she hardly recognises and that has entirely forgotten about her. It’s in this second act that the problems become clear. During Zhao’s time at the top, there’s not much going on, but an old school glamour in the visuals and, especially, the costumes (which are excellent throughout) keep things relatively engaging.
Yet, after this chapter closes out (finishing with a silly looking large scale brawl that has neither real weight nor floaty martial arts fun), Ash is Purest White finds itself lost. Zhao’s struggles in a more capitalist world where she has no standing never feel like real problems, constantly overcome in mere moments by sheer dumb luck. The amount of coincidences that the story requires to work numbs you to its stakes, and its staunch refusal to ever indulge in the conventional romance or thrills of its ostensible genres combined with a glacial pace in every scene is lethally dull.
Where Jia excels is in capturing the surreal vastness and geographic variety of China. We’re taken to the Three Gorges Dam, the deserts to the north, and to some ghost towns serving as crumbling reminders of the old Communist era. The spectre of crony capitalism haunts the nation, and if Jia had used some of the punch he reserves for political pointmaking to spice up the action, there could have been a far more compelling film here. Instead, as it stands, by the time the hideously overlong epilogue arrives, Ash is Purest White has more than worn out its welcome.