Women run the world in Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White

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      Starring Zhao Tao. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rated PG

      There’s no denying Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke’s passion for wringing universal, if somewhat twisted, stories out of remote locations, with increasingly international casts and crews, and turning them into definitive statements on a nation he loves but that definitely drives him crazy.

      Lucky Vancouverites can sample a wide range of Jia’s works in a retrospective at the Vancity Theatre. These include his nihilism-pricking Unknown Pleasures, futuristic Mountains May Depart, and Tarantino-esque A Touch of Sin. One thing those titles have in common with the new one is the presence of Zhao Tao, his favourite star, and wife. She has the whole run of the time-jumping Ash Is Purest White, and pulls it off spectacularly.

      Zhao plays Qiao, a party girl with hidden depths that are tested again and again. When we meet her, in 2001, she’s the blunt-cut Uma Thurman to Liao Fan’s John Travolta. He is Bin, a handsome mobster who runs the local mahjong parlour in Datong. Bin seems to have it all together, and is respected as well as feared by local thugs, cops, and cadres. Well, not feared enough, it seems, and Qiao ends up taking the fall for Bin when she defends him against young hoodlums with his own illegal gun.

      When shit goes down, the twosome don’t find each other again for five years, allowing Qiao to explore the Three Gorges area, with the looming dam project that Jia centred his Still Life on. The new movie becomes increasingly peripatetic, changing video formats as this century progresses, and travels to more out-of-the-way places, as well as revisiting many of the socio-political themes he developed in earlier efforts.

      In the end, which takes almost 140 minutes to reach, Ash is almost too self-involved. The relatively draggy last half-hour, set in the present, rests entirely on Qiao’s undying love for Bin—a fellow who, frankly, doesn’t seem to deserve half this much attention. For some reason, she still doesn’t grasp that she’s the hero of her own story. 

      There's a major retrospective of Jia Zhanke's work at the Vancity Theatre from Thursday (March 21) to next Thursday (March 28). For details and screening times, visit the website.