Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
A very good season for Seattle arthouses continues this week with the arrival of a new film by Jia Zhangke, Ash Is Purest White, the latest feature by one of the world’s most consistently intriguing directors. It’s a film of curious episodes and detours, one of the most curious of which finds the heroine, Qiao (Zhao Tao), sharing a train ride with a stranger who claims to be setting up a tourist destination related to UFO sightings. He goes on about how his project will be all about enlisting people who have “a sense of the cosmos,” and how he needs to “see things slowly” in life.
One of the great things about a scene like this is that it could be an example of the director speaking through a character, or it could be just an oddball passing briefly through the heroine’s journey. Ash is open to either possibility. The movie spans the years 2001 to the present day, and brings a fresh slant to the rise-and-fall scenario of the crime saga. When we first meet Qiao, she is something more than a moll to a middle-range gangster (Liao Fan); she’s closer to a full-fledged partner, a position she relishes. Later, things go south, prison time is required, and she spends the latter part of the film trying to get back to the particular electricity of living outside the mainstream.
Zhao, the filmmaker’s longtime collaborator and wife, gives a tremendous performance. Her presence helps tie the film to Jia’s other portraits of contemporary China—for instance, when she’s talking to the UFO guy (played by a popular Chinese star, Xu Zheng), Qiao blurts out that she once saw a UFO herself, a claim unconnected to anything else in the film, but maybe a reference to Jia’s superb Still Life (2006). In that film, Zhao Tao shares the screen with a puzzling spaceship. Ash, a consistently fascinating movie with its own ration of unidentified objects, is a slow piece that gives you a sense of the cosmos. Nobody else could have made it.
And just to recall the Still Life reference, here’s my review of that film, published in the Herald in 2008.
The huge Three Gorges Dam project in China continues to be a ripe source of material for filmmakers; the latest offering is “Still Life,” a fictional feature from director Jia Zhang-ke.
“Latest” isn’t quite right, since this film won the top prize at the 2006 Venice Film Festival. The delay in distribution is no mystery—Still Life is a drifting movie with only a glancing connection to conventional drama. But if you know that going in, you might find yourself transfixed.
For the opening 40 minutes or so, we follow a man (Han Sanming) as he arrives in the slowly-drowning town of Fengjie. Like many other places along the Yangtze River, the town is vanishing beneath the rising waters behind the dam (the project has displaced over a million people). The man has been separated from his wife and daughter for 16 years, and is looking for them in what’s left of the town. We watch his wanderings for a while, then shift to a woman (Zhao Tao) who is also looking for a missing spouse—not to reunite with him, but to divorce him.
When it becomes clear that these journeys are not building toward any recognizable storyline, it’s easier to slip into the observational mode that director Jia is pursuing. Every scene brings a new vignette that feels absolutely authentic: the way workers take their lunch break or knock down a building, the way bureaucracy functions in a small town, the way pop culture provides comfort in chaos. The only exceptions to this authenticity: a couple of UFO sightings, which pass by with the same naturalistic calm as the rest of the picture. It’s as though Jia is reminding us that documentary realism is not his goal, even though the movie sometimes feels like a nonfiction look at life in China today.
And it is life: not the big issues, though we will think about poverty and displacement during the course of the film, but the day-to-day issues of how people communicate in difficult circumstances, how they dress and eat, how progress eats up communities.
Still Life is shot on high-definition video, which gives a hyper-real quality to the images. If there’s been a more striking combination of everyday reality and the poetic in movies lately, I don’t know what it is.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.