Ash Is Purest White / 江湖儿女 (2018)

The original title is 江湖儿女; “Sons and Daughters of Jianghu”. During the movie, I felt fortunate that I was familiar with Jianghu, which was also mentioned in the movie several times. I’ve heard of the word Jianghu (江湖, or 강호 in Korean) growing up in 80s and 90s mostly from Hong Kong action cinema. In a way, Jianghu is similar to Middle-earth in that it’s a fictional world in a fantasy setting. In the world of Jianghu, there are many groups of martial artists with their own goals and moral codes, often have the theme of chivalry and loyalty. In a contemporary context, Jianghu can also mean the underworld of outlaws or gangs but still with a more-or-less strong sense of similar moral codes.

We witness this in the beginning of the movie (set in 2001) when the main character Qiao and her gang has a ritualistic celebration where they pour various bottles of hard liquor in a bowl, mix them altogether, scoop it out with their own glasses and drink all at once. From the conversations between Bin, the leader of the gang, and other members, we see that they are loyal to each other and try to watch out each other’s back. In this world, Qiao’s role as a member of the gang but also as a girlfriend of Bin, the boss, is somewhat stereotypical mostly because of her gender; she’s supportive, generous, sometimes playful, but not particularly powerful.

This seemingly happy and ideal world Jianghu is shattered when Bin and Qiao’s car was attacked by young mobs who threaten to overthrow Bin. This sort of event is pretty typical in Jianghu fictions. After watching Bin beat by the mob, Qiao gets out of the car and fires a gun in the sky twice as a warning. In a typical Jianghu fiction, this might have resolved the situation and peace would’ve been restored. Instead, Qiao is imprisoned because the weapon was illegally obtained, through Bin not Qiao.

Following the Jianghu moral code, she refuses to tell the authority that the gun was Bin’s, which causes her 5-year imprisonment. The second act of the movie, now set in 2006 when Qiao is finally out of the prison, brings us back to the similar scenery of Jia Zhangke’s other film . Qiao is trying to find Bin. She learns a hard lesson that the world around her changed a lot while she was gone. She goes through many ordeals here where the moral code is broken; people lie and betray all the time. But Qiao quickly adapts and finds Bin eventually, who’s been avoiding her. We learn that Bin got our of jail much earlier than Qiao but never visited her once, and even moved on with a new life with a new girlfriend. He can’t even formally end the relationship, so she had to declare it verbally when they finally met first time in 5 years. Bin, what a coward.

The final act of the movie is set in the present. Qiao is now the head of the old business that Bin used to run. As China went through rapid development nationwide, the city of Datong, where the movie first started, looks very different too. What hasn’t changed is Qiao and Bin although Bin is now in a wheelchair and looks decrepit. He’s bitter and angry, and his old pals also somewhat look down upon him. He’s now a “toothless tiger” under Qiao’s protection. Perhaps he couldn’t stand this because of his ego, so we see him leaving Qiao’s property after sending a short text message to Qiao.

Throughout the three different time periods, we see the people and scenery changing rapidly in China, and in Qiao’s surroundings. But we get a feeling that Qiao’s sense of Jianghu hasn’t changed much. She even once says to Bin that he doesn’t belong to Jianghu and he wouldn’t understand it any more. Based on how she survives and handles matters with this ever-changing world around her, especially in this world of modern China, the movie shows clear contrast of Qiao’s invariant character. This brings up a sense of nostalgia and admiration because people like her probably rarely exist these days and her presence feels fictional; too hard to believe the existence.

Perhaps that’s why the final scene feels most intriguing. When Qiao finds out that Bin has left, instead of mourning, she gets angry and upset. We see her captured in a surveillance footage, leaning against the wall, processing her thoughts. She’s not crying or yelling, just thinking but perhaps with a few drops of anger. This scene makes me think that her character is very much alive and present; she’s probably thinking what to do next because by the end of the movie, we are well aware that she’s a highly determined person.

Things change all the time, with an unprecedented speed these days. Thus the way we look at her is now different; through a surveillance camera. Regardless, we know that she’s always present and her spirit of Jianghu is probably still very much alive in her heart.

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