Initial critical response to Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White has ranged from reserved to fervently approving, but on one point, the critics are in unanimous agreement. As Qiao, a woman from the northern Chinese city of Datong who falls for a local gangster, Bin (Liao Fan), Zhao Tao is outstanding. With Ashes premiering in competition at Cannes, more than a few critics regard Zhao as a serious contender for this year’s best actress award.
As in Jia’s last feature, Mountains May Depart (2015), the sprawling narrative of Ash is divided into three parts set in distinct periods, this one taking off in 2001 and touching down in 2006 before landing in 2018. And for Variety’s Maggie Lee, the landing is more satisfying this time around. “Although the last stretch is too long, the dramatic situation and characters’ emotions are far more authentic and moving than, say, the artificial futuristic setting in the third act of Mountains.”
The A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd, noting that Jia was once “one of international cinema’s leading voices of aesthetic austerity,” remarks that “his movies have gotten looser, and funkier even, over the past few years. Jia takes that further here, both visually (the cinematography is by Olivier Assayas’s regular director of photography, Eric Gautier) and tonally. It’s a surprisingly funny, even loopy film at times, with bursts of slapstick and screwball humor, plus a sporadic absurdism.”
Reviewing this “subtly majestic drama” in the Notebook, Daniel Kasman points out that “each section in Ash Is Purest White is shot a bit different than the others, including format (film, Digibeta, HD digital), aspect ratio, and decoupage, and each self-reflexively calls back to and revises different films from Jia’s own career.”
On that point, for IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, one of the critics with reservations, Ash “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.” That said, there’s one “glowing neon scene” that’s “one of the most incredible things that Jia has ever shot” and “electric enough to put John Woo in his place.”
More from Aldo Álvareztostado (International Cinephile Society), Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 4/5), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5), Ben Croll (TheWrap), Mónica Delgado (desistfilm), Allan Hunter (Screen), Richard Lawson (Vanity Fair), Fabien Lemercier (Cineuropa), Rory O'Connor (Film Stage, A), Jonathan Romney (Film Comment), David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter), Barbara Scharres (RogerEbert.com), Adam Woodward (Little White Lies), and Emily Yoshida (Vulture). And Patrick Frater interviews Jia for Variety.
Ash is also one of the films Nicolas Rapold, Dennis Lim, and Jonathan Romney discuss on a recent episode of the Film Comment Podcast (35’10”).
Update, 5/27: Writing for Sight & Sound, Giovanni Marchini Camia notes that “Jia has dedicated his career to scrutinizing the complexities of the culture to which he and his films belong and it seems likely that in revisiting chapters from his filmography, he wished to address the masculine facets of his own work. In doing so, he gifted Zhao with her most finely drawn character to date, that she in turn has brought to life with her most astonishing performance yet.” More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 3/5), Justin Chang (Los Angeles Times), and Jordan Ruimy (Playlist, B+). And Deadline’s Bruce Haring reports that Cohen Media Group has picked up U.S. rights.
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.