Ash Is The Purest White (Directed by Jia Zhangke)

NZIFF: Ash Is Purest White, Little Woods, [CENSORED]

The good, the bad, and the unexpected in our latest film festival reviews. 

[CENSORED]

Not quite what I was expecting – although, in some ways, more than I expected – [CENSORED] is the fruit of filmmaker-cum-archivist Sari Braithwaite’s time spent holed up alone in an archive screening room with a fascinating and difficult collection of film cuttings, made prior to the relaxing of Australia’s censorship regulations in 1971. [CENSORED] is presented as a ‘personal essay’ film, in which Braithwaite groups clips by theme (eg: ‘Little Man, With His Little Knife’ a selection of knife violence clips; ‘Peeping Toms’ for clips of mostly shower-related voyeurism; ‘Holding a Man’ showing men beating other men) and narrates her thoughts, findings, and research experiences as the film rolls. The filmmaker spoke about the essay format arising out of feedback from previews of an earlier cut that had no narration: viewers were confused as to what the narrative through-line of the film was. Personally, I think I would have preferred Braithwaite’s curated visual story without the voice-over, forcing me to confront my responses to the disturbing flow of repetitive imagery. Imagery that primarily shows harassment of women and the violence of men; the unmistakable male gaze an obvious constant.

It was interesting to note that I (and I suspect a number of others) had similar expectations to those expressed by the director when she first began the project. Namely, that she was going to prove how silly and counterproductive Australia’s seemingly draconian censorship regulations had been. Instead, the researcher soon found herself if not completely agreeing, at least empathizing with the decisions of the censors. The theme of her inquiry opened up in an entirely new direction. Where the film’s genesis was investigating censorship via excision, a broader theme soon emerged: the idea of censorship via exclusion. In the thousands of excised clips the director waded through, only one was from a film made by a woman. Braithwaite begins to interrogate the idea that a more powerful form of censorship was operating: a lack of filmmaking opportunity for and by women and minorities. This, in turn, throws our attention to the present where we ask ourselves: “50 years later, how much have things actually changed?”

At just over an hour the documentary feels a bit slight. It’s fair to say that I got more out of the film with the following question and answer session attached than I might’ve by simply viewing the film on its own. Braithwaite speaks passionately and eloquently but admits a growing lack of clarity around the issue of censorship that has resulted from her research, and this shows in the film. This wrestling with what should or shouldn’t be available in the public sphere (or perhaps to phrase it differently, what is helpful or unhelpful) mirrors issues we are currently seeing in New Zealand with the controversy surrounding public speaking engagements from Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, and also (as one audience member raised in the Q+A) in Block and Riesewieck’s documentary about social media content moderation, The Cleaners. The issue of censorship is not as cut and dried as it might once have seemed. The internet presents a vastly expanded set of challenges and risks than the highly curated medium of film ever did. But even the idea of ‘freedom of expression’ in the realm of historical film censorship is complicated by the fact that many diverse points of view never had the opportunity to be seen and heard in the first place. /Jacob Powell

[CENSORED]

Little Woods

I’m trying to remember when I was last so bored by a film. It’s a challenge, not so much because there are so few boring films out there, but because they tend to be so difficult to remember. I’m worried I may forget this one before I finish writing this review.

“Recalls Winter’s Bone“, says the festival programme of Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods. I love you NZIFF, but this thing recalls Debra Granik’s slow-boil Ozarks masterpiece the way a perplexed-looking three year old recalls Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’. Yes, it features a youngish woman undertaking a difficult task in an out-of-the-way part of the US, and yes, she’s doing it in a self-sacrificial attempt to save the family home. All you’d need to add to make up the rest of the distance would be memorable acting, well-conceived characters, dialogue that works on some level other than leaden exposition, and a plot consisting of something other than cliches.

Tessa Thompson, who’s so good in the right role, did not convince me for one second that she belonged in backwoods North Dakota, or that she had a local name as a canny (albeit reformed) drug smuggler. In an early scene we see her meeting her parole officer: she’s very close to the end of her probation period. We know this because he leans in and says, “You’re so close”. All she has to do is go one more week without getting into trouble, and then she’ll be able to get a decent job and get on with her life. It’s a good thing that her no-good sister isn’t in dire need of a place to live and that the bank isn’t going to foreclose on the old family home in exactly one week. Oh, wait.

Stories this predictable get turned into good-enough films every other week, and Little Woods isn’t actually bad. It’s just lifeless, by-the-numbers, and lacking any of the thousand little details that allow a film like, oh, I don’t know, Winter’s Bone, to grab your attention and live on in your memory. /David Larsen

Little Woods

Ash Is Purest White

In the west, I feel like there are several narratives that dominate the artistic discussion about crime. There seem to be a few stories we tell ourselves about the lives of people who break the law. It became clear how dominant these few stories are in my mind while watching Jia Zhangke’s latest jianghu drama Ash is Purest White. The film follows in a narrative tradition I don’t have full access to, so Ash is Purest White felt incredibly refreshing to my western eye in its approach to the crime narrative, and I was particularly impressed with Jia Zhangke’s portrayal of women in crime. The film surprised me throughout not with huge revelations, but by turns in plot and character that seemed quietly inevitable and very different from those in most western crime stories. Crime seems like a vocation in the film – not a super-power or pathology. Although some terrible things happen to the characters, none of them seem like victims or heroes. Even in moments of very limited choice when hard decisions need to be made, they act decisively and seem to understand the responsibility and consequences of their decisions. The film seems subtle in any judgement it portrays of the decisions made. In this way, the film seems a more convincing crime narrative to me than something like Breaking Bad or Orange is the New Black. For instance, while I get quite impatient with western representations of prison (especially women’s prison), I found that the short scene in Ash is Purest White captured the routine of prison – the hard, lonely work of being incarcerated.

The film takes as it’s frame the relationship between Guo Bin (Liao Fan) and Qiao (Zhao Tao). When we first met them, Bin, a member of the jianghu, owns a mahjong parlour and Qiao is his girlfriend. There are some great scenes of the lifestyle their situation allows. The low-key nature of this affluence is portrayed beautifully. I loved the way Qiao’s bright, fashionable clothes were juxtaposed against the mining village she lived in with her father. There is this great expression of the muted celebrity the couple enjoyed. What I thought was masterful about using Bin and Qiao’s relationship as an ordering force for the narrative was the way their fluctuating status in jianghu was used. This structure, built around who’s in and who’s out with all the risk and righteousness that comes with being on one side of a family or the other is such a compelling shape for a film because this change in status indicates a fluctuating distance between the characters and the power they hold over each other. The fluctuation in the relationship seems matched by the flux of China as a whole. Qiao is on the move for so much of the film and so are many other citizens. Rivers are rising, coal prices are dropping, people are moving great distances for jobs in new centres of enterprise and industry. The film covers nearly two decades and shifts in politics and power are written all over the landscape the characters live and move through. There’s an impressive aerial shot of new condominiums towards the end of the film whose development was facing trouble at its start.

Zhao Tao, a long time collaborator of Jia Zhangke’s, is outstanding in her role as Qiao. I think the way Qiao is portrayed in Ash is Purest White was the element that made me realise most keenly how many more ways there are to talk about crime in film than those I was accustomed to. Qiao, at first, felt familiar to me. She was the crime wife, the femme fatale – sharply dressed, tough and powerful. But as the film went on, she was exposed as a distinct type of female criminal. She discovers her criminal skills out of necessity. They don’t feel like innate powers. She’s picked them up from what she saw and who she met at the mahjong parlour. When faced with crux moments, she looks at her options and some of those options are criminal. There’s a fantastic scene which feels like none I’ve seen before, where after failing at a scam she tries again, changing very little about the scam. But this time, the mark bites and she’s ready to play her part unashamedly and with complete commitment. She isn’t represented as a master-criminal like Debbie Ocean – she just has a job to do and she becomes very good at that job. /Pip Adam

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.