Ash is Purest White

I wish Roger Ebert were still alive so he could write about this movie. I haven’t been watching movies seriously (by which I just mean intently) for very long, and I’m only now starting to experiment with writing about them. I paid a little bit of attention to the whole Scorsese debate about whether the Marvel films are real art and kept returning to Clive Bell’s Aesthetic Hypothesis: “The forms of art are inexhaustible; but all lead by the same road of aesthetic emotion to the same world of aesthetic ecstasy.” Ash is Purest White (directed by the immensely talented Jia Zhangke) is such ecstasy. I’ve been thinking lately about how I’m drawn to the same themes in books, films and music again and again: a flood of longing and the way it often never resolves at all. Desire and where it flows. Desire and the ugly and triumphant way it reshapes you.

Ash is Purest White starts in Datong, a fading Chinese mining town, in 2006. Qiao, our main female character, is a gangster’s girlfriend, the cool and stone-faced Bin. She ends up shooting a gun to protect him, and going to jail for five years because of it. When she gets out, she is determined to find catharsis, and goes searching for Bin. What does she find? Disappointment, of course, along with a changed and rapidly changing China. The movie is visually stunning (Qiao’s blunt bangs / Dreamy landscape shots / worn-down mahjong parlors) but its power is rooted in an intimate emotional gravitas.

The empty-handed longing that suffuses Ash is Purest White thematically dovetails well with the book I’m reading right now, Kafka’s Letters to Milena: his missives from 1920-1922 to a young, beautiful, married woman he was madly in love with (spoiler: she never left her husband). From the book: Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts, and by no means just the ghost of the addressee but also with one's own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing. I love so much reading letters by people who believe that 1) every love story is a ghost story and 2) nothing is alive if you can’t write it down. Jia Zhangke certainly does: the lead actress in Ash is Purest White, Zhao, is his real-life wife, and a mainstay in all of his movies. I like to think that all the films he makes are love letters to her.

What I liked most about the film is the sentiment that passion, with its immense heat, can burn you but leave you clean. So many heroines are left ruined and depraved and insane by their passion. But it goes both ways, doesn’t it? Years ago, freshly heartbroken, all I thought about was whether I’d ever be really over it, whether I’d be like a stuck record going over the same song again, again, again forever. I didn’t realize how much I took for granted the choked intensity of what I felt. Now, looking back, I feel as if I’ve been purified.

I’ll end this with an excerpt of an interview Graham Fuller did with Anna Karina, the schoolgirl muse of the French New Wave who died last week, on the first night she fell in love with Jean Luc Godard:

It happened while we were shooting the picture in Geneva. It was a strange love story from the beginning. I could see Jean-Luc was looking at me all the time, and I was looking at him too, all day long.  We were like animals. One night we were at this dinner in Lausanne. My boyfriend, who was a painter, was there too. And suddenly I felt something under the table – it was Jean-Luc’s hand. He gave me a piece of paper and then left to drive back to Geneva. I went into another room to see what he’d written.  It said, “I love you.  Rendezvous at midnight at the Café de la Prez.” And then my boyfriend came into the room and demanded to see the piece of paper, and he took my arm and grabbed it and read it.  He said, “You’re not going.” And I said, “I am.” And he said, “But you can’t do this to me.”  I said, “But I’m in love too, so I’m going.” But he still didn’t believe me. We drove back to Geneva and I started to pack my tiny suitcase.  He said, “Tell me you’re not going.” And I said, “I’ve been in love with him since I saw him the second time. And I can’t do anything about it.” It was like something electric. I walked there, and I remember my painter was running after me crying. I was, like, hypnotized – it never happened again to me in my life.

So I get to the Cafe de la Prez, and Jean-Luc was sitting there reading a paper, but I don’t think he was really reading it. I just stood there in front of him for what seemed like an hour but I guess was not more than thirty seconds. Suddenly he stopped reading and said,” Here you are. Shall we go?” So we went to his hotel. The next morning when I woke up he wasn’t there. I got very worried. I took a shower, and then he came back about an hour later with the dress I wore in the film - the white dress with flowers. And it was my size, perfect. It was like my wedding dress.

We carried on shooting the film, and, of course, my painter left. When the picture was finished, I went back to Paris with Jean-Luc, Michel Subor, who was the main actor, and Laszlo Szabo, who was also in the film, in Jean-Luc’s American car. We were all wearing dark glasses and we got stopped at the border – I guess they thought we were gangsters. When we arrived in Paris, Jean-Luc dropped the other two off and said to me, “Where are you going?”  I said, “I have to stay with you. You’re the only person I have in the world now.” And he said, “Oh my God.”