Review: 'Ash is Purest White' goes beyond its gangster tale

By Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News
Fan Liao, left, and Tao Zho star in "Ash is Purest White," a film about low-grade gangster life in modern China.

Crime does not pay. Apparently even in China.

Well, it pays for a while in “Ash is Purest White.” As the film starts Qiao (Tao Zho) is queen of the mob in a remote, poor corner of China, mistress to the dashing kingpin Bin (Fan Liao). Well, Bin is as dashing as a guy who wiles away his days in a smoky, run-down backroom gambling parlor in China can be.

Everyone defers to Qiao and Bin, right up until they don't and a gang of motorcycle thugs attack Bin's car. Bin jumps out and begins fighting back in grand gangster tradition but soon it's apparent he's outnumbered and on his way to being beaten to death. So Qiao emerges from the car with a gun and fires a shot in the air.

While that may be just another way of saying hello in Texas, guns are apparently frowned upon in China. The gun was Bin's but Qiao is a good gangster moll and takes the fall for its possession, going away to prison for five years.

When she gets out, Bin is nowhere in sight. After a few kerfuffles in the outside world which she survives with con man cool, Qiao tracks Bin down and discovers he's basically dumped her. Things definitely don't seem to be going Qiao's way.

As a gangster morality tale “Ash” is pretty mild; as a picture of China and Qiao's struggle it's much better. Zho gives Qiao a fierce determination – the way she wields a plastic water bottle is impressive – as well as a vulnerability, and she clings to a kind of noble gangster code even as the landscape around her changes. Which, in this world of changing landscapes, is pretty impressive.

“Ash is Purest White”


Not rated

Running time: 136 minutes