Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White

This is one of the most stylistically conventional movies Jia has made and, relatedly, it's by far his most powerful. It should go without saying that I'm speaking for myself here; many others have found the film misshapen, and I assume there are people who are more moved by his earlier, more formalistic stuff, which I also love. I think "slow cinema" is a stupid, lazy term, but I'm not going to pretend I don't know what whoever coined it was talking about. It has antecedents in the 60s and 70s, it started to coalesce in the 80s, it reached its peak in the 90s and early 2000s and it now exists in ossified form: the practice of long takes, radical stasis and paucity of conventional drama that defines this era of art cinema in opposition to the more forthcoming work that existed back when there was a larger space for cinephilia in our culture. Jia is one of the masters of this movement, but since A Touch of Sin he's been moving away from its dictates. He's now arrived at a strength of characterization, a relative brevity of shots and an urgency of plotting that mark a huge contrast with the formalism and austerity of a film like Platform.

I remember seeing that movie when it first came out; I was a beginning film student, easing my way into hardcore formal radicalism, and it was a step forward for me. It's been almost two decades since then; I've changed, cinema has changed and Jia--one of its greatest artists, I can say at this point--has changed. He has, to my surprise, become a master dramatist. You can see the difference between Ash and most of his previous work in the hotel scene with Bin and Qiao: it's one take, but I think the direction works to downplay that fact more than flaunt it. Jia moves between one and two figures in his framing; it's all very fluid and discreet, and he shifts the camera's position in accordance with the drama in a more pronounced way than you find in his earlier works. It's also hugely important that this is one of the few scenes in the movie which leans heavily on spatial unity and temporal distension; those things used to be the filmmaker's stock in trade, but now he brings them out most strongly for a moment of special narrative and dramatic importance: style is following story material, and that's anathema to formally radical cinema.

This is the first Jia movie to make me shed a tear. Yeah, it's the more conventional film style--formal radicalism has always excited me on an intellectual and aesthetic level more than an emotional one--but it's also the story itself. The UFOs, the flashes of martial arts and the animation sequences in this guy's work complicate any conception of him as a realist, but he's always been an artist with a strong sense of our limitations. He makes pessimistic movies, and not, I think, just as an act of social protest; he hates the way his country is, but his negativity exists on a more intimate, more transnational scale as well, and that's where it hits me in this one. Bottom line: I've never fired a gun, ran a criminal organization, been sent to jail or been forced to eat shit, but this film cuts deep into my heart. The torment, the horror, the heartbreak, the souls scarred and numbed by humiliation and defeat... it all speaks to me in a devastating but validating way. Tragedy is an affirmation of life as I've experienced it, and this is one of the most tragic movies I've ever seen. I can't wait to watch it again.

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