The film starts with Guo Bin (Liao Fan), a local crime boss, and his girlfriend Qiao who epitomize the kind of gangster cool a la John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat. And although Qiao starts the story firmly claiming to be outside of the criminal underworld her partner overlooks, she finds herself holding on to its tenets after everything else has moved on. Qiao aloofly expresses disinterest in ballroom dancing, claiming that she's not into Western culture even though she's just come off of the floor joyfully dancing to "YMCA". But during that joyful romp with her boyfriend, he drops his gun onto the floor and they both stare at it dumbfoundedly for a beat before she gets back into dancing with him again, adjusting to the shock.
The skill to adjust comes to the fore when years later, Qiao leaves prison to find China almost unrecognizable and her relationship with Bin equally so.
In one pivotal scene, Qiao and Bin discuss a dormant volcano and ask how they can know its potency if it hasn't stirred in years. Qiao is that volcano of the film, purified by trial, and evincing a strength that never has to erupt to make itself known. Her facial expressions and feelings are masterfully revealed (or held in check), and Jia keeps the camera lens often at a distance. Her anguish, frustrations, and sadness simmer at that space. They're often ripples in a calm facade that are easily missed if you're not paying attention. Bin is certainly unable to perceive her, to adapt, or to conquer his pride...something that gets in the way of understanding the significance when they both return to the spot that overlooks the same volcano years later.
Qiao holds herself to a moral code, the code of the underworld, long after it's been disavowed and forgotten by the surrounding country. Ash is the Purest White is as much about Qiao's endurance through the radical transformation of China as it is about her changing relationship with Bin. Ash takes place over three progressive time chunks, with cinematographer Eric Gautier using different media for each period to highlight the passing of time. The first goes from DV to 4K, emphasizing the pop of colors, which comes to the fore at the climax of that period during an almost sublime fight scene. The second is shot on 35 mm, with a sort of grain and grace that mirrors Qiao's journey and maturity. Even the sickly neon green in a motel scene is muted, lacking the same vitality of color as before. And the final is shot in digital 5-6K, almost washed out of color, even as it's framed by a reminder of the present and future with its high-speed trains and security cameras.
Jia's film is one of both a grand and intimate scale. He's always reminding us of China's wanton path of progress that pushes people from their homes because of a mine being overtaken or a new dam being built, but he frames it in Qiao's devastating journey as she tries to find herself after something much more personal displaces her. It takes a phenomenal actress to direct attention in that way even in such a demanding setting, and Zhao does it all without gaudy theatrics. Instead, her performance makes us feel keenly for her even if she only gives a scoff to the side or a slight twitch of the eyes. Like Zhao, Jia's performance is neither heavyhanded nor aphoristic. Instead, it gently reminds us of what we lose in changing times and of the impossibility of going back to our homes.