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Qiao is in love with Bin, a local mobster. During a fight between rival gangs, she fires a gun to protect him. Qiao gets five years in prison for this act of loyalty. Upon her release, she goes looking for Bin to pick up where they left off. True love may last forever, but can it weather Chinese infrastructure? In Jia Zhangke's Ash Is Purest White, one woman's loyalty to her love hangs on for 16 years, but it's 16 years that feel visually, technologically, and emotionally (and in the runtime of the film, for better and worse) like a century. Wanna feel old? Zhangke asks. Just be in China, for really any duration of time at all. Your feelings and desires and dreams will feel slow and forgotten, as the skyscrapers and high-speed rail spring up around you. Ash Is Purest White, Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke's most serious foray into the gangster genre since A Touch of Sin, is a winding tale of love, disillusionment, and survival that again represents his vision of his country's spiritual trajectory. More expository and down-to-earth than usual, Jia delves deep into the protagonists most vulnerable feelings as they pay dearly for both sin and honor. At 141 minutes, the work has its intellectually ponderous moments but is ultimately saved by Jia's muse and wife, Zhao Tao, who surpasses herself in a role of mesmerizing complexity. Zhangke, who has become something of a cinematic poet of 21st-century China (Mountains May Depart, A Touch of Sin) once again works with lead actress (and his wife) Tao Zhao. She plays Qiao, who as the film opens, in the year 2001, is the dutiful girlfriend of Bin, a small-time gangster who runs a mah-jongg parlor in the small northern town of Datong. Qiao is the picture of cool, roving the tables, running a hand adorned with a gaudy costume ring over the backs of chairs, her blunt-cut bob perfectly framing her impassive face. She's from a mining family that's been hit hard by the drop in coal prices, but with Bin and the economy he's created around himself, she never has to scrape by. The film ends just after the new year of 2018, back in Datong, with its shiny new rail station and same old mah-jongg parlor. By the end, the transformation of China is more compelling than Qiao's love for Bin, but watching both unfold over time is continually thought-provoking, given the ephemerality of whole cities, much fewer love affairs.
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