DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Many critics consider the Chinese writer director Jia Zhangke to be one of the most important filmmakers in the world. Over more than two decades, he has garnered widespread acclaim and major festival prizes for his movies about how individuals are affected by China's rapid globalization. His latest, "Ash Is Purest White," is a contemporary drama of crime and punishment that spends 17 years following a woman and her gangster boyfriend. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Jia Zhangke is the cinema's foremost chronicler of life in modern-day China, a country that seems to be changing more quickly than its own citizens can keep up with. His style as a filmmaker has evolved as well. In 2006, he made "Still Life," a blend of documentary and fiction that examined the Three Gorges Dam project and its monumental human and environmental impact.
His 2013 thriller, "A Touch Of Sin," used Western and even martial arts movie elements to tell a story of downtrodden individuals driven to commit terrible acts of violence. Jia's new picture, "Ash Is Purest White" is one of his finest - a sprawling, deeply moving gangster romance that begins in 2001 and ends in 2018. Over the course of those 17 years, the movie will track China's ongoing identity crisis as people and lifestyles are uprooted by social and economic upheaval.
But as always, Jia measures these shifts in intimate human terms. His protagonist is a tough-minded woman named Qiao who lives in a coal mining city called Datong in northern China. Her boyfriend is Bin, a small-time mobster who runs a mahjong parlor and a few illegal side businesses. Bin lives according to the traditions of the jianghu, a vast community of people living beyond the margins of mainstream Chinese society. Theirs is an underworld bound by spiritual beliefs and strict codes of honor even when violence erupts.
Although Qiao has little place in this mostly male order, the movie quickly establishes how smart, respected and fiercely loyal she is. She helps oversee Bin's operations and keeps his rowdier associates in line. An early scene of her and Bin in a crowded nightclub jamming to the Village People's "YMCA" captures the excitement and intoxication of their life together.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YMCA")
VILLAGE PEOPLE: (Singing) They have everything for you men to enjoy. You can hang out with all the boys. It's fun to stay at the YMCA It's fun to stay at the...
CHANG: But change is afoot. Qiao's aging father recently lost his job as a coal miner, an early casualty in an industry that will crumble as China continues to modernize. Meanwhile, Bin faces opposition from young thugs with little respect for jianghu customs. In one thrillingly tense sequence, he single-handedly takes on an entire gang on a public street and is nearly beaten to death until Qiao ends the confrontation by firing a gun into the air. But she will pay a high price for her selfless intervention. Refusing to admit that the gun belonged to Bin, she is charged with possession of an illegal firearm and receives a five-year prison sentence.
The movie's title refers to volcanic ash that has been purified by intense heat. Qiao will undergo her own trial by fire. When she is finally released in 2006, Bin has abandoned her. And she has no money or job, nothing but her wits, which are still very sharp. Her attempts to get back on her feet result in some of the movie's most wildly entertaining scenes. It's a hoot watching Qiao crash a wedding feast or blackmail a rich businessman who she rightly guesses is having an extramarital affair. But her journey becomes more somber and disillusioning as the years pass, even when she returns to Datong to seek a new beginning.
Qiao is played by the wonderful actress Zhao Tao, who is married to director Jia and has appeared in several of his movies. She gave a marvelous performance in his 2015 drama "Mountains May Depart." And she's even better here - soulful yet fierce and possessed of a flinty confidence that reminded me of great American stars like Barbara Stanwyck. For all its stark social realism and melancholy mood, "Ash Is Purest White" has some of the grit and spirit of a 1940s Hollywood melodrama. Jia constructs most of his sequences in long, unbroken takes that feel influenced by Asian and European art cinema. But the effect is never distancing. The emotion of the movie pulls you in.
"Ash Is Purest White" is never more gripping than when Qiao eventually runs into Bin, who spent just a year behind bars himself but has proved nowhere near as resilient. The actor Liao Fan gives a brooding, heartbreaking performance as a once powerful and influential man who is now poor, weak and almost entirely friendless. But if Bin earns our sympathy it's Qiao who commands our admiration. In the end, she's the one who truly embodies the code of the jianghu, fighting to protect those she loves and clinging heroically to a way of life that will soon be no more.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. On Monday's show, "Life And Death On Rikers Island" (ph). Dr. Homer Venters spent nine years as head of New York City's Correctional Health Services, where he oversaw the care of thousands of inmates. He details horrific cases of inmate deaths from beatings and neglect and describes some hard-won institutional changes that improved things - some. He has a new memoir. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE HORVITZ: ROYAL ROOM COLLECTIVE ENSEMBLE'S "A WALK IN THE RAIN")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE HORVITZ: ROYAL ROOM COLLECTIVE ENSEMBLE'S "A WALK IN THE RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.