Ash Is Purest White begins with the blaring of a bus horn — a sound which bears striking resemblance to another, heard at the end of an earlier Jia Zhangke film: 2001’s Platform. This makes sense, because these two works are really sister films. Platform surveys the waning years of Maoism, from the late ‘70s to the early 90s, and Ash Is Purest White picks up pretty much where that film left off, with footage shot around the same time that Jia made 2002’s Unknown Pleasures. From here, like Platform, Ash Is Purest White sprawls-out across decades, collating Jia’s 2000s filmography (knowledge of Unknown Pleasures and 2006’s Still Life is of particular importance for gleaning the nuances of the film’s narrative), and, in the process, negotiating a division of not only national identity — which, in China, has moved from collectivism to a greater emphasis on ‘the individual’ — but of Jia’s own cinema, which has transitioned from docu-realism to a more commercial mode of drama — this, in itself, being representative of another cultural shift, from socialism to capitalism. And whereas Jia’s last two films (2013’s A Touch of Sin and 2015’s Mountains May Depart) didn’t seem self-aware in their commercial ambitions (or, rather, of the role that State sponsorship inevitably had in helping Jia realize them), Ash Is Purest White is different in that it confronts its own ‘political’ dualism, its commodified modernity and its cultural traditionalism — narratively, formally, thematically. It’s Jia’s best, most expansive, and most quixotic film.
by Sam C. Mac• Film• Horizon Line