Zhangke Jia’s Ash is the Purest White is a visually and emotionally chilling film that superficially is about a crumbling romance, but at its core covers themes of identity and the progression of self-worth and congruence with Chinese society. Jia uses evolving color patterns to establish the two worlds and the digression of two people as they relate to the world and to each other.
As a viewer, you get the sense that you are watching two different films and actively feel the passage of time. The film touches on themes of progression – whether it’s time, attitudes, feelings – as it relates not only to our two main protagonists but also Chinese society.
The story starts in 2001 and ends in 2017, and the film allows for the progression of identity to show through visual motifs. But there are layers of society to breakdown here. As with every socio-economic structure, China’s development evolves over the course of the 16 years portrayed and manifests a whole new landscape, but within that larger structure there are sub-cultures to assess.
At the outset, the leads, Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao) are part of the Chinese underground, or Jianghu as they call it. Within this subculture there’s a hierarchy of power, in which Bin is projected to be a facilitator, or a “boss” type of character. Qiao assumes a certain amount of power as Bin’s girlfriend, and takes a place within this world without directly engaging in its conventions. The Jianghu life consists of gambling and nightclubs, as well as excursions into business ventures in Chinese society, such as real estate.
Their identity is, thus, a form of power within this subculture. This identity is linked to the color palette that leaps off the screen.
Bright greens, pinks, and oranges impregnate the frames and wash over characters within the frame. Bin and Qiao are often tinged by the lighting, as if Jia wanted these characters to not only exist within this world but also appear to be signifiers of the world.
This fetishized world is initially played against a backdrop of a miner’s strike. Qiao’s father is a vocal advocate for the workers who wish to keep the mining operation in town where it has historically been. The fear being that those in power will move the operation out of town, thus putting many out of work in the small, working-class village where Qiao’s father lives.
When she goes to visit him, Qiao tries to get her father to give up his advocacy. The visualization of her visiting shows the difference in signifiers. Notice the images below:
The residences are colored very blandly against the pinks and blues Qiao wears, which we now identify with her Jianghu lifestyle. She becomes the signifier of this world, thus her attire reflects her identity as a person outside of working-class society. This coloring will be contrasted later in the film as time progresses.
The inciting incident that initiates the change in identity structure is a brutal attack on Bin from a rival within their subculture. Bin is attacked and is being savagely beaten when Qiao makes a choice to wield a gun in order to save Bin’s life. This moment is foreshadowed earlier in the film when Bin shows Qiao how to use his gun while they are out hiking and pause near a (possibly active) volcano, as pictured below:
This is a defining image of the film and a moment of importance in Qiao and Bin’s relationship. When Qiao holds the gun Bin declares that she is now a part of the Jianghu, as Chinese society has dictated that it is illegal to have a gun.
This image is reproduced during the brawl when Bin is being attacked. Qiao anxiously sits in the car during the attack and makes a critical choice to save Bin, as shown below:
These are the last moments of this bright color palette, which up until this point has colored the lives of these two characters. The coloration has become synonymous with them and their identification within the Jianghu, but the moment Qaio brandishes the gun signals the end of this life and the brightness of the film.
For her actions, Qaio spends five years in prison. She is arrested and refuses to name Bin as the owner of the gun, which seals her fate and turns the film upside down.
These images of Qiao’s incarceration are a drastic shift in visual tone of the film. Director Zhangke Jia washes out any possibility of color, instead choosing to blend the colors of the buildings and clothing to signify Qiao’s loss of placement and her conformation into a different world.
After serving five years in prison, Qiao is released and journeys back to reconnect with Bin. But notice the images below:
The visuals subconsciously insert Qiao within the newer society by coloring her in the same hue; so blatantly that she nearly disappears against the backdrops. No longer are there neon pinks, greens, and blues; they’ve been replaced with light yellows, browns, and off-whites. The ripple effect of her decision to save Bin’s life has dramatically altered the colorful aspect of her life, as well as the film and, in effect, Chinese society. Where once she wielded a power associated to Bin’s status within the Jianghu, now she is just another person in a different socio-economic structure.
Without knowing the story, the viewer can feel the significant change in the world we’ve seen thus far in the film. After she is robbed of her ID and money on her voyage home, Qiao must engage in grifting to complete her trip. She swindles money from a gullible man, lies her way into a free meal at a wedding reception, and steals a motorcycle, all of which is dramatically opposite of the life she used to lead.
Eventually, she returns home only to find that Bin has moved on with his life and is in a relationship with another woman. At first, he avoids facing Qiao, using a surrogate to give her the bad news. But Qiao refuses to leave until she speaks with him.
When she confronts Bin, the visuals revert slightly to allow a small interjection of color to return to the frame.Neon green splashes through the window from behind the characters; a brief return of the signifier from earlier in the film. However, the outcome of the scene will serve as yet another turning point in the palette. Bin and Qiao do not get back together, and the color of the film will reflect this seismic change in Qiao’s life. The identity she once knew is gone forever.
As she struggles to find a place in the world, Qiao’s coloring and her framing within the world poses a dialectical shift. She tries to find a life to latch onto, and in the process she assumes multiple identities and uses fraudulent tactics to navigate her way through a society she has no connection with.
Eventually, she finds a place adjacent to her old life, and Bin returns in a different capacity.
The palette now is colder. The incendiary quality that we saw at the outset of the film has been washed out completely. When Bin returns, he is confined to a wheelchair after having suffered a stroke.
Thus his physicality, once a signifier of his power and identity, has been stripped.
Ash is the Purest White is a rich journey for two characters and a keen study of the evolution of personal identity within different structures of society, all projected with narrative conventions as well the progression of the film’s color palette. On the surface it is a heartbreaking love story about two people whose lives digress in dramatic ways and struggle to find their way, but underneath the romantic veneer it poses questions about the repercussions of decisions as they affect personal identity.