Tag Archives: B+

ASH IS PUREST WHITE (JIANGHU ER NV)

Producer: Shozo Ichiyama
Director: Jia Zhang-ke
Writer: Jia Zhang-ke
Stars: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang, Feng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan, Zhang Yibai, Ding Jiali, Zhang Yi and Dong Zijian
Studio: Cohen Media

B+

Like all of Jia Zhang-ke’s films, “Ash Is Purest White” is, at its basis, a tale of change in modern Chinese society, in this case using a sort of low-rent “Godfather” scenario as the plot catalyst. Rest assured, however, that it is no conventional gangland saga: it has the same ruminative, moody tone as the writer-director’s previous work.

In common with “Mountains May Depart,” the film has a tripartite structure. It begins in 2001, when its heroine, Qiao (Jia’s wife Zhao Tao), comes into the headquarters of her boyfriend Guo Bin (Liao Fan), a small-time provincial gang boss who enjoys settling disputes among his associates and the locals while holding court in a mahjong parlor. She’s a hard-bitten type who takes no guff from anybody, and joins the crew in a toast to their brotherhood and its code of conduct (something that the original title alludes to with the word “jianghu”).

But times are changing in the crime world, as in society as a whole. We see the larger reality when Qiao visits her father in their coal-mining hometown, where the industry is dying and the population moving away. Transition in her smaller, more closed world is portrayed when an older mob associate of Bin’s is killed, apparently by a gang that represents a new, less disciplined type of criminality, and then he’s assaulted, first by a pipe-wielding thug and then by a bunch of vicious motorcyclists. The person who saves him from the attackers is Qiao, who uses his illegal gun to fire a couple of warning shots that send the attackers packing.

Then she protects him further by claiming that the gun is hers, earning a five-year prison term by doing so. He doesn’t even visit her while she serves the sentence, and when she’s released, he’s disappeared.

That begins the second section of the film, set in 2006. Qiao travels the Yangtze past the Three Gorges region so prominent in Jia’s earlier “Still Life,” past towns soon to be submerged by the massive reservoir’s rising water, in search of Bin. Old acquaintances tell her that he’s moved on and doesn’t want to see her. Jia provides Qiao with a series of encounters during her odyssey that reveal, with touches of both humor and poignancy, her capacity to take charge. She’s robbed and must use her wiles to survive by conning philanderers and indulging in other minor scams. On a train she meets a blowhard entrepreneur who claims to be spearheading a project to set up tours of UFO-sighting sites but proves to be a fraud; she, on the other hand, experiences such a sighting herself. She uses her wiles to steal a motorcycle when she needs one. And she finally locates Bin, only to find a changed and desolate man.

The third act of “Ash” leaps to 2018, and Qiao and Bin have effected a reconciliation of sorts, but on very different terms than those of two decades earlier. She is now presiding over the mah-jong parlor, while he sits dejectedly in a corner a shadow of his former self, treated without the earlier respect from his colleagues. Yet Qiao, still true to the old code even in a society that has taken a sharp turn, holds to what she considers her responsibility even now. The English title refers to the pure ash produced by the tremendous heat emitted by active volcanoes, which acts as a symbol of the absolute fidelity to the old values Qiao maintains even after enduring two decades of wrenching change in her life—and the society around her.

“Ash is Purest White” is, like Jia’s earlier films, very much a personal reflection on what has been happening to modern China, employing gangster conventions—and sequences involving radical shifts in popular music, dance styles and outdoor entertainment—as an element of that rumination, rather than surrendering to them. It’s technically assured—with classically composed cinematography by Eric Gautier and editing by Mathieu Laclau and Lin Xudong entirely in sync with Jia’s lapidary rhythms.

The linchpin of the film, however, is the stunningly nuanced and vital performance by Zhao, who convincingly charts Qiao’s two-decade journey. She’s ably abetted by Liao, whose sharp features convey strength, but who’s equally effective as the broken shell he becomes in the picture’s latter stages. The supporting cast includes cameos by directors Feng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan, Zhang Yibai and Xu Zheng, which comes across as more a stunt that will appeal to buffs than an artistic necessity.

At nearly two-and-a-half hours with subtitles, this is hardly a film for the megaplex crowd. But it’s an important addition to the canon of one of today’s truly notable filmmakers.

BIRDS OF PASSAGE (PAJAROS DE VERANO)

Producer: Katrin Pors and Cristina Gallego
Director: Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra
Writer: Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde
Stars: Carmina Martinez, Jose Acosta, Jhon Narvaez, Natalia Reyes, Jose Vicente Cotes, Juan Bautista Martinez, Greider Meza and Yanker Diaz
Studio: The Orchard

B+

Avian symbolism permeates Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s follow-up to “Embrace of the Serpent,” the dreamlike fable, mostly shot in black-and-white, that illustrated the effects of colonialism on the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon. Though shot in blazing color, “Birds of Passage” addresses a similar theme. It’s a “Godfather”-like saga illustrating the destructive impact of the drug trade on the traditional culture of the Wayuu people, a Native American ethnic group that has long inhabited the Guajira peninsula, an arid region that straddles the border between northernmost Colombia and extreme northwestern Venezuela.

The film, which is divided into five chapters or cantos, introduces us to the Wayuu in the 1960s through a festive celebration that marks the coming-of-age of beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes), the daughter of clan matriarch Ursula Pushaina (Carmiña Martinez). The ceremony involves a dance in which the now-marriageable girl and a feathered male—in this case, her younger brother Leonídas (Yanker Díaz)—mimic a birdlike mating ritual. Watching from the surrounding circle is Raphayet (José Acosta), who challenges Zaida to dance with him and then declares his desire to wed her.

Ursula is persuaded by Raphayet’s uncle Peregrino (José Vicente Cotes), who is also the clan’s primary messenger, or carrier of the word, to accept the young man as a prospective son-in-law, but only if he can come up with a substantial dowry of goats, cows and necklaces, which is at present beyond him: his sole source of income is as a minor cog in a delivery system for alcohol and tobacco. But he sees economic opportunity in the demand for marijuana among American Peace Corp workers, and decides to become a player in making locally-grown weed more available to gringos, including directly to dealers who will fly it directly out of the country.

It’s a lucrative plan that wins him Zaida, but it brings problems. He purchases product from a powerful local grower, Anibal (Juan Bautista Martínez), who boasts a large private army and has a daughter whose honor he jealously guards. Raphayet’s long-time buddy and partner Moisés (Jhon Narváez) is an alijuna, or outsider, with a volatile temper and an itchy trigger finger. And Zaida’s brother Leonídas (now played by Greider Meza) is a surly young man simmering over his loss of a leadership position to Raphayet.

This proves a combustible combination, and though Raphayet becomes a major figure in the local drug trade, building a white stone mansion in the middle of nowhere for himself, Zaida and their children, things gradually fall apart. But the reversal is not merely a personal matter; it sets off violent clashes that ultimately bring outsiders from Medellin into the region. More profoundly, it rips apart the clan system that has been the foundation of Wayuu culture, leaving the region’s indigenous traditions in tatters.

The destructive impact of outside “civilization” on peoples that have lived sheltered, isolated existences for centuries is clearly as much the point of “Birds of Passage” as it was of “Embrace of the Serpent.” Unlike that film, however, this one opts for a more conventional narrative form. It still conveys a sense of mystery, presenting Wayuu customs and beliefs without explicit explanation, allowing viewers to work through the oddities on their own through immersion in the culture. At the same time, however, by using the familiar tropes of gangster melodrama it makes the unusual milieu accessible.

The film is exquisitely made, though in a style very different from the misty, luminously monochrome “Serpent.” The widescreen images, this time in color, have been fashioned by cinematographer David Gallego to have extraordinary breadth and scope, emphasizing the landscape’s vastness and aura of otherworldliness. Leonardo Heiblum’s score, which employs instrumentation typical of the locale, adds to the ambience.

The cast combines professionals and amateurs, and Gallego and Guerra manage to blend them skillfully. Most importantly, Martínez is a properly stern figure as Ursula while Acosta exudes quiet determination as Raphayet. Among the supporting cast Narváez and Meza stand out for their intensity and Cots for his understatement.

Big and small screens may be awash in stories about drug lords nowadays, but this film offers a distinctive, compelling take on the “Scarface” formula.