Sean Gilman’s review published on Letterboxd:
Wrote this for Frame.land's end of the year coverage:
After a brief prologue of unused footage from his 2001 film Unknown Pleasures, Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White begins with a floating drone shot of a cityscape. Rising drumbeats mark the beginning of the familiar Wong Fei-hung theme song as Jia cuts inside to a packed and noisy gambling den. The camera follows Zhao Tao from behind as she slinks her way through the crowd, and just as the martial theme kicks into gear, an unknown extra shouts her character’s name and she whips her head around, fixing her interlocutor with a stare and the barest hint of a smile, sly and commanding, the coolest person in the world. In many ways the film, loosely structured after the plot of A Better Tomorrow, is a travelogue through the last 17 years of Jia and Zhao’s work. The movie becomes more diffuse as it moves along, as its early gangster setting gives way to the scrappy realism of their sojourn on the Yangtze in Still Life, ending up in a more abstract, and therefore unsettling present. But through it all, Zhao remains at the center. We watch her through her husband’s eyes and every once in awhile, thrillingly, she looks back.