It’s a surprisingly funny, even loopy film at times, with bursts of slapstick and screwball humor, plus a sporadic absurdism.
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The meandering narrative sprawls like a great Dickens novel but individual encounters and elements that may seem like distractions all reflect back on the greater themes.
It’s a movie that often feels like a mega-mix of Jia’s greatest hits, but one that rehashes them with precious little of the ineffable grace that make each of them so valuable on their own.
The performances of the two leads are riveting.
By the end, the transformation of China is more compelling than Qiao’s love for Bin, but watching both unfold over time is continually thought-provoking, given the ephemerality of whole cities, much less love affairs.
Ash Is Purest White is a fascinating chapter in Jia’s ongoing chronicle of ordinary lives affected by unprecedented change in China.
The work has its intellectually ponderous moments but is ultimately saved by Jia’s muse and wife, Zhao Tao, who surpasses herself in a role of mesmerizing complexity.
What does the ending of Ash Is Purest White mean — and what does its middle or beginning mean? I’m not sure. It feels like a gripping parable for the vanity of human wishes, and another impassioned portrait of national malaise.
I love the way Jia grapples with large social shifts in such metaphorical and yet still intimate ways, peering in on individual people caught in the churn of time and growth and framing them in the defining context of their surroundings.
Ash is Purest White is a tremendous, funny, heartbreaking, sprawling vehicle for Zhao, and what a gift it is to see her exploring the furthest reaches of those talents.