From the outset of his career, Jia Zhangke has steadily developed a core theme of charting China’s progress from emergent communist superpower to its present-day purgatorial stance between state authoritarianism and unchecked capitalist expansion. Ash Is Purest White is his latest, and fullest, explication of this through-line, a film so deeply informed by its maker’s entire career that its first shots are actually gathered from footage that Jia shot at the beginning of the millennium during the production of Platform. Even when the film moves into new footage, it resembles Jia’s breakout feature, with a brief study of a carnival performer not altogether unlike the touring actors who made up that film’s ensemble. As the man does tricks for a rapt rural audience, a woman, Qiao (Zhao Tao), makes her way into a seedy backroom where mahjong is being played by gangsters. The transition from the static image taking in the performance to the gliding tracking shot that follows Qiao as she radiates femme fatale cool summarizes Jia’s stylistic transition from Hou Hsiao-hsien-esque ornate starkness to unorthodox genre revivalist in seconds, immediately establishing the film as a work of culmination.

In the backrooms and dance clubs where Qiao meets with gangsters, she gravitates to her boyfriend, local don Bin (Liao Fan). Bin’s leadership is traditional to the point of near-religiosity; when an argument breaks out between subordinates over one enforcer supposedly not repaying a debt, Bin mediates the threat of violence by calmly making the accused swear his innocence on a statue of Buddha, at which point the man demurs and makes amends. Elsewhere, the men and Qiao pour their respective drinks into a communal bowl as they make a pledge of unity. Bin’s serene leadership of his crew, combined with his warm, peaceful relationship with other gang leaders, presents an almost utopian vision of self-sufficiency for this humble group of hoods.

Narratively, the film then follows a steady collapse as Qiao and Bin head deeper into the new century and the pressures of China’s dizzyingly fast social changes rend apart the characters’ comfort. Things go south when a turf war breaks out with a rival gang and Qiao scares off an attack on Bin by flashing his pistol. Though she kills no one, Qiao’s refusal to rat on Bin for firearm possession lands her in prison for a few years, emerging to an unrecognizable China deep in the throes of its conversion to a capitalist superpower. This transition is immediately illustrated in the behavior of her erstwhile comrades, who have separated and refuse to honor their earlier bonds of solidarity. Members of Bin’s crew make weak excuses to avoid providing a now-destitute Qiao with help, and even Bin hides from his former moll when she attempts to visit him, sending his current squeeze out like an executive assistant to inform Qiao that he is not in to receive her.

The message is clear, that the era of group solidarity has given way to individualistic greed, though the satiric manner in which Jia reveals the craven, solipsistic behavior of the men in Qiao’s life opens the film up to a surprising amount of comedy. Left to fend for herself, Qiao gets into a number of amusing scrapes, including stealing a motorcycle from a man who propositions her for sex and defending a woman from gang harassment so that she can beat the lady for unpaid debts. In one of the film’s best moments, Jia pivots from verité scenes of Qiao roaming city streets to a gorgeously choreographed mini-caper in which she gets cash by following a married man into a restaurant and posing as the sister of his pregnant mistress to blackmail him.

Yet embedded within these bits of comedy is the overriding sense of wistfulness and loss that echoes through Jia’s work in pangs of regret. An amusing early scene features a man barking labor protests over a loudspeaker in the mining town where Qiao and Bin reside ends somberly when the speaker is revealed to be Qiao’s drunken father lamenting the closure of the mine and relocation of workers. The film’s second half involves the central image of Jia’s study of China’s colossal restructuring, the Three Gorges Dam and the evacuation and destruction of towns, particularly Fengjie, in the subsequent diversion of water. Qiao heads to a yet-undemolished Fengjie after getting out of prison, though Jia films Qiao’s ferry ride down the Yangtze with a ghostly quality, as if the area were disappearing in real time.

Ash Is Purest White reorients the primary subject of the gangster epic from the mobster to the moll, producing something akin to Once Upon a Time in America by way of a D.W. Griffith/Lillian Gish picture, wherein Qiao is at once self-reliant and helpless, abandoned by the system and loved ones but scrappy enough to survive. Into this generic framework Jia slips other stylistic diversions, such as the unexpectedly fluid fight scene of Bin fending off attackers, a single-take marvel that bobs and weaves with Bin as he dodges or endures multiple strikes and gets his own licks in before Qiao fishes out his gun and fires into the air before aiming at the rival gang members, cutting an instantly iconic profile as she stares holes into them.

As he did in Mountains May Depart, Jia says much through music. An early blast of the Village People’s “YMCA” in a club reverberates with exuberance as Qiao dances with the crowd. That image is mirrored in tragic, ironic terms when she is later forced to do group calisthenics in the prison yard, the earlier sense of spontaneous unity now enforced conformity. Later, as Qiao puts her life back together, “YMCA” recurs in a public morning dance, not forced but nonetheless lifeless and lit in the same cold blues with which Jia filmed Qiao’s stint in prison. Something has changed and can never be as it was, a pall that hangs over the film’s second half as Qiao finds loved ones broken and broke as greedy subordinates have risen to oust their more reserved leaders. Fraternal and romantic love keeps the peace in the early stretch of the film, but Jia’s sweeping view of China’s transition communicates the fear that, in the face of social upheaval, mass relocation and a recalibration of moral principles, love is not enough to keep people bound together.

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