Ash Is Purest White is a new Chinese romantic crime film directed by Zhangke Jia. The movie tells the story of two lovers whose relationship is plagued by violence over the course of the decade and a half which it spans. It debuted at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival in competition for the Palme D’Or.
The story of the film is definitely interesting, but it boils down to a riff on the classic star-crossed lovers storyline popularized by Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet. The movie does adhere to many of the conventions of the genre without fail, so it is easy to see where the story is going to go. However, the film is done with such subtlety that it almost feels insignificant.
One of the reasons why the movie doesn’t work quite as well of the classics of the subgenre of romance into which it falls is that the characters aren’t particularly well-developed. For a relationship to be compelling, both of the members of the relationship must be likable and compelling on their own, and this film fails to establish that quality in them. Furthermore, the movie doesn’t really establish adequate stakes for their love. The best romances make it known that the characters’ worlds are effectively going to end if they don’t end up together. The film could have done a much better job of setting this up.
That being said, the movie does have a very unique tone, and it does an extremely good job of establishing this tone. The film has a very light and bouncy tone despite the dark subject matter and occasionally very dark imagery and events featured within. Because of this, the movie’s messages about the meaning of love are delivered in a way that is compelling and touching.
The pacing of the film is also relatively strong. Although it often feels like there isn’t a whole lot of lateral narrative movement, the interactions that make up the movie are still interesting and enjoyable to watch. The film clocks in at a little over two hours and ten minutes, and while the movie definitely isn’t super exciting, it doesn’t ever feel like it is dragging, especially because of the many time jumps that take place.
The actors all do an excellent job too. The two leads, Tao Zhao and Fan Liao, have great chemistry together and do an excellent job of selling the romance at the core of the film. Zhao is amazing, delivering a performance that is nuanced and filled with emotion. Her performance is a significant part of what makes the movie work. Liao’s performance is far less subtle, but still impressive, as his passionate delivery works quite well in multiple scenes.
On a technical level, the film was quite good too. The visual style of the movie was absolutely beautiful. The cinematography is excellent, with a ton of great compositions. Additionally, the score and soundtrack do a great job of complementing the visuals. That being said, there are some things that didn’t exactly make sense visually. For example, the film switches aspect ratios early on with no explanation.
Overall, Ash is Purest White was a solid movie. Although the characters could have been more compelling, the film as a whole was pretty interesting.
Ash is Purest White is now playing in select theaters.