After Shoplifters, Another Cannes Gem Ash Is Purest White Arrives in India
A couple of weeks ago, we saw Hirokazu Kore-eda's Cannes Palm dÓr winning Japanese work hitting theatres across India. This Friday, we have yet another Cannes gem.
A still from Ash is the Purest White.
India may roll out more than 2000 films year after year – a figure that is second only to Nigeria, which, though, creates most of its cinema through video-cameras. The quality, I dare say, can only be abysmal. India is on a much higher altitude, but falters and fumbles and slides and slips on the scripting front. So, a brilliant story turns out to be dull and drab. Add to this exaggerated mannerisms and over-the-top performances, and what you get is unmitigated bore. Yes, there are good movies, but they are few and far between.
It is in such a dismal scenario that one feels elated when an interesting work from across the seas or the mountain ranges arrive. A couple of weeks ago, we saw Hirokazu Kore-eda's Cannes Palm dÓr winning Japanese work hitting theatres across India. This Friday, we have yet another Cannes gem, Jia Zhang-ke's Chinese language, Ash Is Purest White.
Premiered at the French Riviera in 2018 (an attempt must be made to get these kind of films quickly), Jia's is a power-packed social documentary, narrated through a haunting story of love, loss, and how these go hand-in-hand with the social changes which China has been experiencing.
Jia's loves to set his plots at important turns in history, and Ash... begins its journey when the nation steps away from a strictly socialist order to capitalism. Rapid industrialisation and the appearance of Western symbols, including smartphones, point towards this. We know that along with this transformation, personal equations and relationships too will start to break, opening up newer, but more fragile, ties.
Qiao – essayed by Tao Shao (Jia's longtime companion and muse) lives in a small, dusty, coal-mining town with a grumbling widowed father to dampen her spirits even more. So, she steps outside her home and finds Bin (Fan Liao), a local tough who whiles away his time in a club, gambling and drinking -- with Qiao more than willing to be his comrade-in-arms.
But then nothing remains pretty and perky for long, and Bin's enemies get him on the road one night. In the ensuing fight, Qiao takes his unlicensed revolver and frightens away the murderous gang. But she gets caught, and takes the blame for possessing an illegal firearm and spends five years counting the bars in her prison cell. Her lover gets out quickly.
When Qiao comes out, she is startled to see the kind of changes, and Bin himself, in an act of great ingratitude, moves away and takes a new girlfriend.
Shattered, Qiao embarks on a journey of revenge, seducing men out of their money. She finally traces Bin, brings him back to the same town where they first met. But then it is not all sugar and sweet for them: Bin is ill and bound to a wheelchair, and while she takes charge of his life and a new gang, their life together is one endless bout of drinking and gambling. There is little love there, and volcanic ash said to be of purest white is not quite white. Rather, its is a miserable grey. And film's title appears more like a tease.
Ash is Purest While plays out like a parable. On the one hand, we witness some of China's most far-reaching social and political changes and their consequences (how the Three Georges Dam will destroy the buildings around, for one), while on the other hand, we see the transformation of Qiao. From a young woman with dreams and desires, she turns into someone with steely iron. Is that female empowerment that we are seeing all around us. Saudi Arabia has just lifted travel restrictions on women; they do not need a male guardian to okay their trips or an application for a passport. Me#Too has given women mighty powers, and Jia encapsulates this in his latest work with Qiao as the iconic lady out to rule.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is author, commentator and movie critic)
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