Ash Is Purest White (2018)
Dir. Jia Zhangke
The temporal leap in fiction can be one of storytelling’s more alienating occurrences as it is often there to signify to the reader that the stakes in which they had become invested are now different. At worst this is due to narrative laziness, and at its most treacherous a considered effort predicated on an author’s belief that people and places change enough to warrant a clean start and reader reorientation. Jia Zhangke’s perception of time passing is more intimate than this. Qiao is not a figure externalised in fragments for narration but someone who lives and breathes time as she wanders through it. New chapters aren’t clean starts for new obsessions, but a continuation of all the last ones made more burdensome as the body and brain amble forwards.
Ash is Purest White drifts because it’s wise enough to get away with it. Of course something is the most pure when it burns the brightest it possibly can and then disappears, but nothing ever happens that way. Think Xiaotian playing the piano into the sun in Romancing in Thin Air. Here Jia isolates moments of that burning purity and we feel them being remembered as they play out in front of us. Rather than achronology, emotions guide us to read how things will be framed: the gangster sweetness of the first act, the lonely apparitions of a past set to dematerialise when everyone else forgets. The burden of chronological remembering weighs a tonne.
Jia’s trick, to use a lineage of digital cameras that low-key remind us of ourselves holding on through time’s passage, is a powerful one. There’s both pathos and affirmation to be had in looking at images of oneself frozen in time and the aesthetic logic of the technology that captured it. There’s an impossible purity that we still carry, a disappointment, a new host of old images and obsessions that linger as we piece together the narratives around us. Like we’re aliens checking in occasionally, and not the other way around.