Back at the turn of the millennium, in the northern Chinese industrial city of Datong, Qiao and Bin are an underworld power couple. Not quite Bonnie and Clyde — too disciplined, too businesslike — but with more than a hint of old Hollywood gangster style. In the provincial dance halls and gambling parlors where Bin holds court in the first chapter of “Ash Is Purest White,” he and Qiao carry themselves with glamour and authority.
Bin (Liao Fan) gazes through a permanent haze of cigarette smoke, his handsome poker face occasionally betraying a hint of amusement or surprise. Qiao (Zhao Tao), from a more respectable background, amplifies her lover’s charisma with her own. They are the brightest stars in a constellation of hustlers, sycophants, tough guys and wannabes, whose admiration is streaked with envy and fear. Nobody is cooler.
Packets of money change hands, and eventually a gun is fired, but “Ash Is Purest White,” Jia Zhangke’s enthralling new feature, isn’t really a crime drama. The aura of romantic, outlaw chic that hovers around Bin and Qiao soon dissipates, replaced by the clearer, grimmer air of reality. Jia, an essential figure in China’s “sixth generation” of filmmakers and one the most inventive and engaged directors of the 21st century, has long concerned himself with the effect of enormous social and economic forces on the intimate experiences of individuals. His movies, fictional and nonfictional alike, document the transformation of cities, landscapes and ways of life as those upheavals affect families, couples and groups of friends.
Viewed from one angle — from the ground level of its plot — the scale of “Ash Is Purest White” can seem modest. It’s the story of two people whose love collapses under the weight of bad luck and betrayal but who can’t manage to quit each other. When Bin is attacked by members of a rival gang, Qiao saves his life. Rather than rat him out, she accepts a five-year prison sentence, after which she goes looking for Bin, who has left their home province, Shanxi. Earlier, he had told her about traditional criminal code of “righteousness and loyalty,” but she seems to be the only one committed to upholding it.
On her way to find him — it’s now 2006 — she takes a ferry down the Yangtze River, through the area soon to be inundated by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Later, she will find herself on a train heading west, striking up a friendship with a man bound for the province of Xinjiang. Even without a detailed knowledge of China’s geography or its recent history, a viewer feels the dislocation and momentum of accelerating change — and something of the country’s sheer vastness and density.
There is always something new. By the time “Ash Is Purest White” returns to Datong, in the present day, the city is almost unrecognizable. But Jia’s perspective is neither nostalgic nor optimistic. His movies don’t imagine a stable past to be mourned or longed for. (Since 2000, his non- or semi-documentary features, all essential, are “Platform,” “Unknown Pleasures,” “Still Life,” “The World,” “A Touch of Sin,” “24 City” and “Mountains May Depart.”) Nor do they project a happy future on the horizon. His world is in constant motion, and his refusal to hurry through it — the grace of his camera movements, the sometimes agonizing slowness of his scenes — can be understood as a kind of protest, a reminder of the ethical necessity of paying attention.
The most consistent focus of Jia’s attention is Zhao Tao, who has appeared in nearly all of his works since the 2000 film “Platform.” (They have been married since 2012.) At once delicate and indomitable, down to earth and otherworldly, she has come to figure in his filmography as both an Everywoman and a quasi-mythic being, a woman whose heroism resides in her refusal to disappear. From film to film, playing a variety of characters, she moves through industrial wastes and high-rise developments, night life and factory work, love and crime, wielding her individuality as a shield and a weapon.
Qiao’s resourcefulness in “Ash Is Purest White” is a source of both pathos and encouragement. She is a survivor, and perhaps because of that she endures more than her share of suffering. But the film as a whole is too rich with incident and surprise to be bleak. Jia has always had a sly sense of comedy, and an appreciation of spectacle. He lingers at drunken parties, appreciates the solemn ridiculousness of ballroom dancers performing at a funeral and revels in the full-throated emotion of a cheesy love song. The high point of Qiao and Bin’s relationship may be when they dance together to the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” — a pop-culture cliché that Jia embraces even as he mocks it.
The strangest moment in “Ash Is Purest White” is surely the appearance of a U.F.O., an event that is all the more astonishing for being without any particular consequences. The lights streak through the night sky, and down below life keeps going. This may be a reminder of the vastness of the universe, a symbol of mysteries beyond reckoning, or a bit of mischief on the director’s part. It’s not the first time the possibility of extraterrestrial life has popped up in one of Jia’s movies, which are in every other respect the opposite of science fiction. Except, perhaps, insofar as the truest human feeling he recognizes is alienation.