There are only two moments in Jia Zhang-Ke’s obliquely epic mobster (or “jianghu”) movie “Ash Is Purest White” when a gun goes off. Unlike the shots fired in Hollywood movies, these have consequences. As in many of the films Jia has made since his 1997 Bressonian debut, “Xiao Wu,” petty choices prove fateful and marginal lives are swept up by seismic social change.
The story begins on April 2, 2001, the date announced on a PA system in the sprawling, shoddy mining town of Datong. It is a day to remember, says the amplified voice, because “you can see a miracle” (it turns out to be a carnival act in which a guy picks up a bike with his teeth). Local crime boss Bin (Liao Fan) rules this tacky fiefdom along with his tough-cookie moll Qiao (Zhao Tao). When the couple isn’t dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” at the local disco Bin plays mahjong with his subordinate “brothers” or resolves their disputes. One of the latter negotiations ends with Qiao pocketing a discarded handgun, a whim that she will regret.
The good times for Bin and Qiao are about to end, however. A microcosm of the political, cultural, and economic changes in China at the time, Datong is expanding and a new generation of crooks wants a piece of the action. Shockingly, young punks on motorbikes bump off the big boss Bin answers to. Then they bash Bin on the shin with a pipe. Finally, a swarm of these upstarts descends on Bin’s limo, resulting in a rousingly choreographed street donnybrook reminiscent of the fight scene in the Hong Kong gangster film Bin had watched earlier. The fracas ends badly for the couple, who both end up in prison.
Five years later, Qiao is released but Bin is nowhere to be found. She spends much of the rest of the movie trying to track him down or, failing that, looking for someplace where she can forget him. She travels thousands of miles on numerous trains from one dead end in China to the next, from the Three Gorges, where the government has displaced a million people to build a giant dam (the subject of Jia’s 2006 film, “Still Life”), to the frontier wastelands of Xinjiang, where she follows a shifty entrepreneur who wants to start a UFO-tourism company. “What you need in this business is a sense of the cosmos,” he says. “The bottom line is that we are all prisoners of the universe.”
Jia would seem to agree. In the film he spans 18 years by means of elliptical cuts, with the dates overheard from off-screen broadcasts or the appearance of new mobile phone models marking the passage of time. A network of recurring motifs unifies these episodes, such as the gun, the trains, vast, unfinished construction projects, and a volcano which inspires the film’s title. As Qiao and Bin gaze at this dormant peak she muses that the ash produced by its intense heat would probably be of the purest kind. But the love between her and Bin only simmers. It is not pure; it lingers long and then grows cold.
ASH IS PUREST WHITE
Written and directed by Jia Zhang-Ke. Starring Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang. At Kendall Square. 136 minutes. Unrated. In Mandarin, with subtitles.