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Jia Zhangke’s extraordinary body of work has doubled as a record of 21st-century China and its warp-speed transformations. A tragicomedy in the fullest sense, Ash Is Purest White is at once his funniest and saddest film, portraying the passage of time through narrative ellipses and, like his film Mountains May Depart, a three-part structure. 

Despite its jianghu—criminal underworld—setting, Ash is less a gangster movie than a melodrama. Qiao (Zhao Tao) is the humble yet sassy moll to the swaggering but fair Bin (Liao Fan), a handsome gangster in a depressed mining town. When Bin’s ballroom dancing-obsessed boss is bumped off, Bin moves up, becoming leader of the ‘Jianghu’, a brotherhood of honourable criminals. But times have changed and honour is out of fashion, so when Bin is attacked by members of a new generation of wannabe mobsters, Qiao makes a decision that will have a seismic impact upon their lives.


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