“Wherever there are people, there will be jianghu”. Formative Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke’s latest film promises to be a darkly sordid venture into the Triad underworlds, but the passenger proves significantly more interesting than the journey here – with Zhao Tao a revelation in her third collaboration with Zhang-ke. An overlong third act casts an unfortunate blot on an otherwise superb telling of the changing Chinese landscape, a climate of adapt-or-die that threatens those closest to our protagonist.

The film opens on some old digital footage of a bus journey, before we’re then introduced to the narrative proper by-way-of widescreen. It’s a subtle, if rather mundane method of showcasing time progression, although it’s worth noting that the older footage was actually shot by Zhang-ke back in 2001 – then the feverish new owner of his first video camera. The developments that have since followed are what underpin Ash Is Purest White’s broad temporal span; though we begin in 2001, by the final act we’re in 2018 – a rarity for the historically-inclined Zhang-ke.

Central to all this is the quietly savvy Qiao (Tao), an atypical moll to Triad boss Bin (Liao Fan). Operating in a world of crime, one that is traditionally masculine and invariably seedy, Qiao appears content with this position – toasting “to brotherhood!” in an early scene. Between advising Bin in the underworld and cavorting to YMCA (a hilarious sequence that stresses her cosmopolitan distinction), she frequents Fenyang – her rural hometown, where her socially-active father spends his remaining years stirring up the masses at the local mine. As with Bin, Qiao takes care of her father from the sidelines – comfortable clearing up the aftermath of their outward machismo.

Naturally, this is all called into question when Qiao is finally jolted into action after a violent ambush sees Bin facing certain death. At the culmination of this electric fight sequence – where Datong’s inner city provides a glorious neon backdrop to the murky green streetlights of the action on-the-ground – Qiao fires a gun to end the brutality. Preserving the life of Bin by surrendering her own, Qiao is sentenced to five years in prison. The world she emerges to is vastly changed, as is the man she protected.

It’s in this middle section that Zhao Tao finally comes into her own – hopeful to the point of heartbreak, her life dismantled by love and her expectations of it. Now residing in the Three Gorges – the site of a highly controversial construction in recent Chinese history – Qiao employs every sly trick in the book to get by, with her scenes scamming lovestruck-eyed men in hotel lobbies a particular highlight. All of this is accompanied by her trusty blue-capped water bottle – a necessity in this stifling new climate, but also a subtly amusing motif borrowed from Zhang-ke’s Still Life.

Despite her intentions to start anew in Xinjiang, Qiao ultimately never quite makes it to the idyllic north-east. Instead, the third act sees her return to Datong in the present day – one that has been consumed by redevelopment and sees the once mythic Triads now waving around their smartphone cameras at meetings. Now crippled and bitter, Bin again proves to be Qiao’s heavy baggage. And while it’s distressing to see the once-great kingpin helplessly displaced from this new society, the film ultimately suffers from a lack of Qiao – the real tragedy of this new world.

Dir: Jia Zhang-ke

Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang

Prd: Shozo Ichiyama

DOP: Eric Gautier

Music: Lim Giong

Country: China, France

Year: 2018

Runtime: 141 minutes