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By the time Ash Is Purest White's New Year’s Eve-set finale rolls around, there is little doubt that filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke can craft masterful, raging cinematic arguments, when he so desires.

Courtesy of TIFF

  • Ash Is Purest White
  • Written and directed by: Jia Zhang-ke
  • Starring: Zhao Tao
  • Classification: PG
  • 136 minutes

rating

In Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhang-ke’s 2015 meditation on the unstoppable rise of modern China, the director cheekily used the Pet Shop Boys cover of Go West to kick things off. As his camera captured leading lady Zhao Tao (the director’s real-life wife) dancing to the track with friends, Jia allowed audiences to revel in a brief moment of unbridled optimism, before the dark reality of an evolving Shaanxi province took over the narrative.

In the filmmaker’s new, challenging and ultimately rewarding drama Ash Is Purest White, Zhao lets loose to another disco-ready tune, this time the Village People’s YMCA. Again, a poppy song is employed as a psych-out prelude for a deeply pessimistic vision to follow. But it is not exactly as if Jia is repeating himself here – only that he is single-minded in his desire to dissect his home country with a dedicated ferocity (and, yes, maybe let his wife shimmy across the screen every now and then for her trouble).

Perhaps the filmmaker could have dipped into one or two more pop tunes, though, as Ash Is Purest White, which follows the decades-long dissolution of one woman’s relationship with a low-level gangster (Liao Fan) feels more sedate than righteous. Entire passages stretch along at a too-leisurely pace, allowing whatever anger Jia is surely carrying to too-frequently cool off. Still, by the film’s New Year’s Eve-set finale, there is little doubt that Jia can craft masterful, raging cinematic arguments, when he so desires.

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Ash Is Purest White opens March 22 in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec City.

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