Ash is the Purest White (2018)
Words by Sonia Parra Otero
Ash is the Purest White (2018)
China’s emblematic director Jia Zhangke and his wife, actress Zhao Tao take us on a journey through the decadence of traditional values, agonizing by the iron hand of capitalism in a warning tale on the brutality of time and the poisoned evolution of a nation that has forgotten itself.
Had I been told that this tale about the rapid modernization of China would awaken so many seemingly unrelated feelings in me, I probably wouldn't have believed it. Because in theory, this is a story about the cruel yet mystical nature of time: an epic tale of a low life Antigone rising as the ancient empire of China collapses around her. But in practice, there’s a pathos and an intimacy to this film that seems to speak to its viewers on a personal level.
To the heroine of the story, Qiao, time seems most unkind. After devoting her innocence and youth to the head of the jianghu, the local gangsters, she is left behind by the world, incarcerated for holding a gun. A bullet shot into the night sky in order to save the one she loved shattered her life in the blink of an eye. She was sentenced to five years yet when she was released, the macrocosm had changed beyond recognition.
It was the early 2000s and history had never before run faster than those living it. In just five years, capitalism had eaten the old traditions of China and sucked its bones. Her father had died, her old mining town had been long forgotten by the authorities and there was no trace of her beloved Bin and his jianghu. Qiao was gutted alive. Everything that comprised her home was lost and consequently, her own identity had been lost. That’s what happens when everything changes but you can’t.
Qiao’s journey is brilliantly reflected in her fashion. In the first act, when she was young and the future seemed bright and full of possibilities, she wore the rainbow on her skin. Her distinctive look was a pink see through blouse with a heart embroidered over her chest. She was in love. The intensity of the colors represented her lust for life, her burning passion, her ash-like purity. However, when she’s in jail, her uniform is blue. Sad, tranquil blue. A visual representation of nothingness.
Once she gets released, and for the entirety of the second act, Qiao wears a pale faded yellow shirt that symbolizes her lack of life. There’s no fun anymore, no hopes, no love. There’s no Qiao, as she was yet to build herself in the new world. But in the third and final act, we are delighted to see her in black. Black evokes the winter of her life and the impurity of an existence far away from the burning passion of the volcano. We see power through her confidence and her expensive clothes, now bought with her own money. We see the rightful head of the jianghu.
It’s cathartic to see Qiao flourish despite having all odds against her, despite being unfairly incarcerated and betrayed by the only man she ever loved. Qiao perfectly represents the traditional values of China and those of the jianghu: loyalty and righteousness. She prevails because she remains true to the high moral standards of ancient China, standing tall over every man around her. They couldn’t keep their word, corrupting the glory of jianghu and therefore being punished for it. Qiao climbs her way to the very top of the food chain, every step mirroring the downfall of Bin. She’s everything and he’s less than nothing, yet he still holds power over her. The power of love is a double-edged sword and, more often than not, the only weapon capable of hurting an outstanding woman.