Director: Jia Zhang-ke
Actor: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng
For as long as there have been gangster pictures there has been the trope of the gangster’s moll; the beautiful dame as trophy appendage with smart retorts but virtually no agency of her own. The latest film from Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke inspects this trope, subverting the conventions through more probing inquiries.
Beginning in 2001 and spanning 17 years, the film stars Zhao Tao as Qiao. When we meet her she lives in a rural mining community, Datong. There she is the girlfriend of jianghu brother Bin (Liao Fan). Generally, this entails sitting in on games of mahjong as the men converse. Zhang-ke, favouring long takes as is customary, sets out some of the film’s stall in this opening sequence. Sure, the men do all the talking, but the scene ends with Qiao picking up a gun.
Incidents of violence against Bin and the jianghu increase, culminating one fateful night when a gang of youths set upon his car. Qiao quietens the rabble by firing off rounds into the air, but the incident lands her in jail for five years for brandishing an unauthorised firearm. While serving her time, Qiao isn’t once visited by Bin, and on her release in 2006 she begins a process of redefining herself.
This extended second act is by far the film’s most interesting. With her prior male peers absent from the narrative, Qiao embarks on an episodic odyssey, reshaping by necessity her own self-image. Some of these lessons are hard won, but there is also humour here (witness, for instance, Qiao stealing the motorbike of a sexual opportunist, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere). Her journey of self-discovery may not appear to follow a direct route (A doesn’t always lead to B), but this process allows the film to breathe and gives Tao ample time in which to imbue her character with genuine dimension.
Of course, she doesn’t adhere to the staples of the western gangster moll; this isn’t a western film. Still, it is a gangster picture, and that’s an arena overstuffed with bravado males. Zhang-ke smiles at this truism within the movie. There’s a scene in which the male jianghu members all gather to watch a violent action movie. No women are present. The men look as though they are in church or a school lesson; as though they’re watching an instructional video on how to behave.
Outside of this, the usual expectations of male mobsters are thwarted whenever possible. A wonderful early club sequence finds Bin and Qiao both dancing avidly to ‘YMCA’ by the Village People, and it then quickly transpires that one of Bin’s close compadres is enthused with ballroom dancing. Hardly the rituals we’ve come to expect from the tough bosses of organised crime seen in films by Martin Scorsese or John Woo.
At the other end of the picture the strength and might of such mafiosi is also chopped down. Zhang-ke shows us how our bodies fail us. A former boss is reduced to a wheelchair following a stroke. Another man is unceremoniously hit on the head with a teapot which shatters; the dumbstruck look on his face is priceless.
For all these sly digs at the masculine culture of gangsters, this is wholly Zhao Tao’s film. One of the questions that surfaces during that wonderful second act is whether or not Qiao is at an advantage as a female ex-con. There is a sense here that she has been afforded a set of freedoms that her male peers might not have been afforded. She is able to act as a chameleon; adopting different roles in different situations, and is not limited to the typically male imprints of what and how an ex-con looks and behaves. The freedom to reinvent herself extends to arbitrary changes of direction. A chance encounter on a train briefly sends her off to a potential new life, only for the promise to be broken by yet another disappointing man.
This acts as something of a segue into the more jaded final act. As much fun as it may be to toy with starting over, so few of us really do. We gravitate to what we know, finding a sense of safety in the familiar. It imbues the finale with a bitterness that feels like a hangover after what’s gone before. The film draws in again, grows smaller. All that possibility feels like a holiday. Fleeting. Encumbered by mortality.
Ash Is Purest White has flare to it (its Zhang-ke after all), and in Tao he has quite a fearsome muse, but its an uneven viewing experience that can also at times play as defiantly humdrum. Still, in Qiao we are gifted one of the more resourceful, pragmatic and principled gangster molls in all of cinema. It’s just a shame that the bottom line is we’re all prisoners of the universe.
Ash Is Purest White is available now on Curzon Home Cinema and is playing in select cinemas across the UK.