This series highlights films that have played and will be playing at various international film festivals, from Berlinale in Germany or Locarno in Switzerland to Toronto International Film Festival or New York Film Festival. The latest film under discussion premiered in competition at Cannes earlier this year. It recently screened at TIFF and will also feature in NYFF’s line-up, playing on October 1st and 10th respectively.

For quite some time, Jia Zhangke has been regarded as one of China’s—and indeed the world’s—premier filmmakers. This has been the case from the earliest days in his career, during which his debut feature Xiao Wu (1997) received extensive praise and support from none other than Martin Scorsese as well as a strong international appeal. These early independent features (Xiao Wu, Platform [2000], and Unknown Pleasures [2002]) were noted for the power of their immersion in historical and socio-economic milieu, as well as their treatment of history and changes within it. These themes did not relent as Jia transitioned to work related-to-and-approved-by government agencies (The World [2004], Still Life [2006], and 24 City [2008]), with each piece becoming more stylistically and experimentally curious in their embrace of surrealism, non-actors, and docu-fictional conceits; even as they more deeply situated themselves within the stratifications of Chinese society and the contradictions that have come about due to the speed of economic development. Following 24 City, Jia has confessed to feeling aimless and unsure of where to take his work, and it would be a full five years before the release of his next feature, A Touch of Sin (2013). This particular film appears to have ushered in a new era for the filmmaker, one more rigidly associated with character-focused melodrama and proximity to genre, even as it continued the director’s now-patented structural play. A Touch of Sin took on a quadrangular form and riffed ostensibly on the wuxia picture; Mountains May Depart (2015), the director’s next film, a more traditional and quasi-dystopic Sirkian drama displayed a tripartite shape; and now the also three-part structured Ash is Purest White has been designed to orbit Hong Kong triad and heroic bloodshed films.

The Chinese name of Ash is Purest White is «江湖儿女» (Jiānghú érnǚ) which translates as roughly as Sons and Daughters of Rivers and Lakes; wherein rivers and lakes here references jiānghú, a name given to ancient outlaw societies in China that also serves to underline and emphasize the disparate and amorphous nature of their membership and lifestyle. It’s this organization that provides the context for the story, as it follows the protagonists Bin (Liao Fan) and Qiao (Zhao Tao) over the course of the film’s three parts and nearly two-decade timeframe. The film begins in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi in 2001, reprising elements of Unknown Pleasures, with the introduction of our lead characters as they live in the city of Datong and dance to the Village People’s ‘YMCA’, look wistfully into the camera as Sally Yeh’s theme to The Killer plays over events, and reckon with an emerging gang war that leads to consequences that unceremoniously put an end to the couple’s dreams of local dominance or provincial migration and lands one of them in jail, otherwise confirming the wist underlying their existence. The latter acts move on to charting comings and goings between the pair, as both in their way come to reckon with and embrace the life of rivers and lakes (jiānghú), itinerantly flowing and passing the other, as the values of the jiānghú collective—loyalty and righteousness—are put overwhelming to the test. Qiao chases Bin around China for an explanation regarding a betrayal inflicted upon her and in so doing finds only cowardice and a lack of integrity, in contrast to her own fidelity; and by the film’s end the viewer and characters find that for these slights nothing will bring healing even as a tenderness and concern remain.

It’s worth nothing that while Mountains May Depart, Jia’s previous feature, had assumed a tripartite structure as a novel formal conceit, Ash is Purest White develops it by adding a layer of intertext to proceedings; as previous works from the director’s filmography are openly evoked and aesthetically embraced in production design and cinematography (each part is recorded using materials current to the period of the evoked film’s release: film, HD camera, digital). However, a deeper evolution besides technology is in the extent of the focus on character in this most recent work, as the narrative, intertext, and genre-stylings are unanimously submitted to the dynamics of the Bin-Qiao relationship. This submission is so thorough that the narrative ellipses that come with Jia’s recent quadrangular and tripartite structures here go unstressed in a manner wholly distinct from their clear presence in his other works. Further, in the manner of A Touch of Sin, the genre elements are clearer than they have been previously, as the film spirals between action, comedy, and drama with a certain freedom, with each genre in that order taking more primacy in each act of the narrative. Indeed, the overarching identity of the film could be understood as a rewired Hong Kong triad picture—with inspiration being taken from the likes of both John Woo’s The Killer and Johnnie To’s Election duology, with the sense of apocalypse being redirected toward the protagonists rather than a world and way of life as social possibilities—even as it’s put through the ringer of Chinese social realism, wherein the narrative can only reach heights plausible, rather than desired in relation to high drama.

Since Cannes, much praise has been directed at the film and it’s not hard to understand why; the attention to color and texture is outstanding, the story has a genuine emotional power and melancholy, and when genre is approached—be it action or comedy—the film strikes gold. Further, the inter-text or-filmic discourse is decidedly curious, as should one have familiarity with the director’s other works, one can’t help but feel the director is thinking how something new can be realized and found dialectically in the process of creation. Yet, the familiar praise that is often lavished rightly on Jia’s work from US critics, the sort that remark regarding the film of presentations of “social disaffection brought on by China’s embrace of modernization”, of wrestles with “unprecedented change in Chinese life”, or high concept considerations of “[l]ife after modernity” don’t quite apply here. Ash is Purest White displays a narrower focus, less concerned with tectonic economic, social, and infrastructural shifts in China than it does the movement of characters through discreet phases of the recent past. If most of Jia’s career can be understood with regard to the establishing of definite contexts that serve to iterate change and lack in each particular narrative and the tensions that reside therein—from the “reform and opening up” that occupies Platform’s attention, to struggles with poverty and mobility in Unknown Pleasures, to the dislocations of migrant workers and locals affected by the Three Gorges project that drew Still Life’s concern—then the present film is significantly neutered in presenting any sort of overt and direct attention to social dislocation and inequity. Even Mountains May Depart’s suspicious metaphysics of nationalism as it pertains to the rising middle class and elites of China has more clear affective similarity to the aforementioned concerns of the director, despite it too being notably muted in drastic ways. Ash is Purest White is then, in contrast to these prior works, an unfiltered character drama.

If one desires a metaphorical reading of the film, it might be found in Jonathan Romney’s understanding of Zhao Tao’s Qiao as “21st-century China itself”, who endures the passage of time and the changes that result in the people surrounding her as a crucible that refines and tests the values of the jiānghú that she holds so dear: loyalty and righteousness. In what is overall a sensible and measured response to the film, it’s a reading of the character that is no doubt plausible, although of the fetishistic sort that perpetually finds value in presentations of China as a place in need of quasi-mystical self-reflection. Yet, even as this reading is somewhat tedious, it does highlight what is the essence of the film: Zhao Tao and her character. There is indeed focus on a class or milieu in the jiānghú, but unlike Jia’s past works there is no tension as to its existence or importance, it is simply an irrelevant and persistent fact: “Wherever there are people, there’ll be jiānghú”, says Bin in the film’s first act. Further, as Ash is Purest White mines the filmmakers prior works it does so not to heighten their attention to class, poverty, and struggle but for aesthetic trimmings to furnish Qiao’s journey. In the second act the viewer retreads the environs and temporality seen before in Still Life but gone are the laborers, the migrants, and the evicted, instead we follow one character in pursuit of their former lover. Now, while it is no doubt correct that Zhao’s performance underlines her talent and cements her as one of the world’s great actors, it is worth noting what is going on inside and around this performance: the championing of an almost ascetic embrace of loyalty and righteousness as values to be maintained in an inescapable underworld that provides the subject with little but struggle and cosmic indifference. “We’re all prisoners of the universe”, says another character, a narrative fact that is made all the more haunting and complicated if the film’s hero Qiao is indeed a stand-in for 21st century China.

To some this criticism may seem off base, as if what is desired is ultimately another film. This is surely not the case, insofar as Jia cites his previous works as formal material for use in this new work, and as such it seems apparent that they may also be material for an inter-filmic critique. Of course, such comparisons will naturally lead to statements of preference and dissatisfaction as the filmmaker who made one film is not the same as the one who makes a later one, a fact all the more pertinent as Jia presents himself so clearly is in a state of flux and change. In this change it is also the case that Ash is Purest White is not the work of a director repeating himself but rather culminating and synthesizing his career on the basis of who he is now. And who is Jia today? A millionaire movie mogul; member of China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress; and future commercial filmmaker. All of this accounts greatly for the changes apparent in the make-up of Ash is Purest White’s identity and place in the director’s filmography, perhaps marking for the first time in Jia’s career that he has made a film that borders on or maybe even truly does lack urgency, interest, and value.

If what the audience sees before them in the film is, as those given toward metaphor so desire, an embodiment of 21st century China and ciphers for values, then gone or going are the people who have populated Jia’s past films. To reprise Wang Bing’s criticism of the Chinese fifth wave that “There’s no people” and further, “only stories”; it is hard then not to see Jia and Ash is Purest White in or touching on this mold. The latest work fails to capture any perceptible person undergoing discreet moments of history, instead displaying ideas suffering through time. None of this makes for an incompetent or unwatchable cinema—the film is supremely watchable and formally ranks among the best of the year—but these shortcomings also serve to mark it as considerably less relevant in a career defined by its vitality and awareness of person and society. In a conclusory word, if the excellence of a work such as Still Life is understood with respect to its attention to milieu and personal and collective struggle, then Ash is Purest White is hampered by its failure to comprehend and capture any tangible milieu or struggle at all beyond that of character-focused fiction.