The fascination Jia Zhang-Ke demonstrated with how China has changed over the past two decades in his 2015 Mountains May Depart continues with his latest film, Ash Is Purest White. In a coal-mining town in 2001, Qiao (Zhao Tao) is the lover of mob boss Bin (Liao Fan). That their sense of what a criminal life entails is derived from the movies is established by the use of Sally Yeh’s title song from John Woo’s The Killer. (If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the song — and if you haven’t seen the movie, you really should.)
Qiao gets sent to prison for firing a gun into the air while defending Bin against a rival gang, and when she’s released, in 2006, she finds the world she knew is gone. Ash Is Purest White follows Qiao through New Year’s Day of 2018 as she searches for both Bin and herself in a rapidly changing China, and the title is a reference to how volcano ash is pure due to the high temperature at which it burned. Jia Zhang-Ke is fond of using geological processes as a metaphor for inexorable change, but unfortunately his pacing gets downright glacial at times, especially in the third-act dialogue scenes. But the purity of his vision cannot be denied.
Not Rated. Opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.