By Jerome A. Cohen
The new interesting film by Jia Zhangke has elicited prominent journalistic attention. In the March 13 NY Times, veteran reviewer A.O. Scott calls it Jia’s “enthralling new feature” that develops what starts as a crime drama among urban Chinese lowlife into “a clearer, grimmer air of reality.” Scott seems unaware that in contemporary China the Communist Party is a major social and political force that permeates reality and that one can innocently enjoy this love story gone wrong without realizing that the Party is left out of the story, which otherwise attempts to provide a moving and informed portrait of current gangster life.
By contrast, the reviewer in Film Comment, published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, someone named Abby Sun, obviously knows more about the People’s Republic than Scott does. Sun, noting that Xi Jinping recently merged the country’s film board with the Party’s Propaganda Department and that the Party cut out from the film’s domestic release a cameo appearance by another well-known but apparently disgraced director — Feng Xiaogang, speculates that Jia may have made the film in “a way to head off or discourage specious Chinese state control”.
Whatever the explanation, I for one was surprised at the omission of the Party’s presence and the simple, candied appearance given to the legal and prison systems. It reminded me of what the dissident writer Liao Yiwu said when, shortly after his first arrival in the U.S., he was asked what he thought of his first American residence in the Chinese-dominated New York City district of Flushing. “That’s easy,” he replied. “Flushing is China without communism.” Ash is Purest White could have been made in Taiwan or even Hong Kong, if not Flushing!