The thing about Asian movies (and foreign movies generally) is that appearing in an art house is not necessarily a sign of being an “art house” movie. While horror or chopsocky flicks don’t usually turn up, sometimes just the fact of being foreign is pretentious enough to get on the marquee. On the flip side, having a different groups of different ethnicities nearby means that the movies those groups watch usually aren’t art house films. Around here the art house Indian films are swamped by the Bollywood mass market stuff, the Persian films are basically flip-a-coin, and European films are almost always the arty ones (with some notable exceptions).
In other words, it’s hard to tell.
Which brings us to Ash Is Purest White, the story of a woman and her boyfriend who run the underground in a tiny town that is shifting under the massive weight of the Chinese government’s plans. They’re the kingpins in their tiny town when a plan gone wrong ends up with the boyfriend being beaten half-to-death in the street while the woman fires a gun to scare off the attackers and save him.
Of course, you can’t have a gun in China, and the cops interrogate her. She goes to jail for her man only to discover when she gets out that he’s started a new life and a new scam in a new city—with a new dame, and he’s not interested in having her around any more.
So, this is the story of a gangster’s moll whose love is a lot truer than the man she loves, and this movie details their desultory relationship over the course of twenty or thirty years. It’s an interesting play on the sensationalized, romantic, lurid gangster pix that the Chinese (and we!) love so well—but it’s definitely an art pic. It’s slow moving and morose, with an overarching message of crime not paying not so much on the local, immediate level, but really not paying on the larger life level.
Actually, the best bit in the movie is when our heroine, desperate for cash and stranded in a new city full of strangers, scams a guy out of some cash. She’s sitting in a restaurant watching the men who come in, and when she spots a mark, she walks up to him and whispers something along the lines of, “She lost the baby, you know. I’m her sister.” Despite being armed with this knowledge of masculine nature, she’s still kind of a chump for this gangster who is worthless from start to finish.
It’s not really a fun movie, like a traditional gangster flick—and perhaps worse, these are not characters you’re necessarily going to like, though at least you can find the heroine’s loyalty admirable. We did like it, but forewarned is forearmed: You will feel all 2 hours and 15 minutes of this.