Because ash is the purest white!

Updated: Jul 31, 2019, 06:21 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Best way to absorb a totally unique worldview this Friday is to catch this Chinese underworld film, opening at a theatre near you

Because ash is the purest white!
Ash Is Purest White attempts to capture semi-urban China's years, precisely between 2001 and 2018

Mayank ShekharJustifying his bullet-train plans even before he became the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi as Gujarat CM, used the example of China before a group of industrialists once. He claimed he'd told Manmohan Singh, the PM then, that what India really needs are modern showcases to the world. It's not that the rest of China looks like Shanghai. But that's the staggeringly futuristic image we conjure of current-day Middle Kingdom, since that's what we see most often.

And, this is true. Although I've never been to China — never been curious enough to either — there is hardly a better insider's peek you're likely to get to one of the world's best-kept, contemporary, societal secrets as Jia Zhanke's Mandarin film, Ash Is Purest White, that opens in (select) Indian theatres this Friday.

The film — starring the effortlessly elegant Zhao Tao (master-director Zhanke's frequent muse, and wife), and the naturally macho Liao Fan —was the toast of Cannes in 2018. This is just to separate this art-house realism, from fantastical features that one associates Chinese mainstream cinema with — especially ever since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that swept the Oscars in 2001, perhaps more so as the Academy's acknowledgement of China's ascent as a political/economic giant.

Why's that significant? Because Ash Is Purest White attempts to capture semi-urban China's years, precisely between 2001 and 2018, over three separate time-settings, with 2006 in the middle — detailing a universal growth story, fraught with human displacement, economic redevelopment, and grand projects aimed at taming nature.

All of this forms, at most, a subtle backdrop — hardly if ever interfering with the central plot. How does French cinematographer Eric Gautier capture these timelines? You'll notice, using cameras/frames that equally reflect the evolution of technology in the intervening years.

Here's the catch though. This is an underworld/mob film — a mainstream movie-genre that, over the past few decades, has descended into such a sea of clichés, that the only way to genuinely enjoy a film rise above it, is when it delves into languages/cultures inherently distinct from the Italian Mafiosi (Hollywood), or indeed the chawl/slum-boys of Bombay!

Let alone the fabled Pablo Escobar's Mexican landscapes, this could happen anywhere between Chennai (Vetrimaaran's Vada Chennai), and China. The case of China is even more enticing still. For, how does one build, operate, lease, and transfer in an underworld, when the state itself is so deeply authoritarian that it resembles the mafia on its own?

China, from a distance, seems to inhabit a parallel universe anyway. It's not surprising then, you notice, that the word for the underworld in the film — "jianghu" — appears as is, rather than with a direct English translation; because, frankly, there is none. Having read a little more on the evolving, ancient Chinese word 'jianghu', in its scope, it seems to cover a way of life, all the way from a traditional martial-arts society, to one centred on hermits (uninterested in the regular world), and then, eventually, sub-society of working professionals and wastrels, who prefer to operate outside diktats of the state-authority they resent. This last lot would of course include outlaws, and therefore the mafia.

Which makes sense. Members sworn to jianghu in Ash Is Purest White drink to "righteousness," and "loyalty." The patriarch-don, Brother Eryong (the leading man's boss) says "there are two things he cares about: animal documentaries, and ballroom dancing!" The latter, I suspect, emphasises on the inevitably growing western influence on Chinese society. The former, as Eryong puts it, is because when he watches lions, tigers, and ants in the wild, he thinks of humans: "They eat, drink, and fight just like us. It's sad."

The mafia (and politics being merely its sub-set, if not the overarching umbrella), one could argue, effectively captures man's primal instincts as hunter-gatherer, with individual ambitions to lord over the pack — through coercion or care. In that sense, every underworld film, whether Chinese, or Japanese (my favourite being Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine), will follow a similar cast of characters, pattern of behaviour, and almost always some pop-culture references that mafia-movies tend to pay homage to.

The girl in this movie dances to Village People's '70s hit YMCA at the night-club. There are Mandarin songs in the film with lyrics that underline the point the character/script wishes to make (in a way that this could be any other Bollywood movie). The centre-piece sequence revolves around a motorbike street-chase.

But, no, no, this isn't one of those movies! You'll realise this few minutes (of the 130) into a series of long takes in long-shot, exuding a ruminative/meditative quality, where you can hear silences on screen, observe moods and movements, although eventually stepping out pretty much as engaged as you would with a blockbuster experience.

Just saying. So you don't go in quite expecting the Cantonese thriller Infernal Affairs (remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed). Ash Is Purest White is basically a female-centric romance, set between a don, and his moll. Oh, didn't mention that!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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