Ash Is Purest White

⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Not rated; in subtitled Mandarin.

Theater: Edina.

 

The title of this exquisite Chinese movie references a conversation between a woman, Qiao (Tao Zhao), and her boyfriend, Bin (Fan Liao), as they look over an extinct volcano. Qiao marvels, “Anything that burns at high temperatures has been made pure.”

The notion of purity — another word for it might be loyalty — courses through this beautiful, expansive and deeply melancholy drama, in which Qiao will endure her own intense trial by fire. Writer/director Zhangke Jia, a master of the long arc, follows the character from 2001 to 2018, a period of sweeping social, political and technological change that he measures in intimate, incremental human terms.

Over those 17 years, Qiao will lose everything except her indelible understanding of who she is. She will uphold and question the ties that bind her to Bin, and which bind both of them to this land and its timeworn traditions.

Bin is a small-time mobster. Qiao is a formidable partner, overseeing a few of his rackets and taking no guff from his cohorts. Both of them follow the way of the jianghu, a word that means “rivers and lakes” but figuratively describes a vast community of people dwelling beyond the margins of mainstream society. Theirs is a rural underworld governed by strict honor codes, spiritual beliefs and occasional eruptions of violence.

Bin is caught dangerously off-guard, targeted by a rival gang that has little regard for jianghu diplomacy. Qiao intervenes and ends up in prison for five years. Years pass, landscapes morph and entire ways of life seem to vanish, leaving only whispers of memory and regret in their wake.

Jia (Zhao’s husband and frequent collaborator) builds scenes with a highly observant camera that doesn’t seem to be dramatizing the action so much as conducting panoramic surveillance, gliding gently with the actors in long, fluid takes. Despite its elegiac tone, loose structure and leisurely narrative flow, the film has some of the grit, energy and emotional generosity of a 1940s Hollywood melodrama. You are pulled in almost immediately by the beauty of the characterizations, the specificity of the milieu and the depth of feeling that courses beneath every exchange.

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

 

The Beach Bum

⋆⋆ out of four stars

Rated: R For pervasive drug and alcohol use, profanity, nudity and sex.

 

This comedy is a fun-for-a-while attempt by writer/director Harmony Korine, American indie cinema’s effrontery kingpin, to go a little bit mainstream. That it works for roughly half of its 95 minutes is thanks to Matthew McConaughey’s stoned exuberance.

It’s a story about life in the Florida Keys as lived by “the world’s most prolific,” most consistently stoned poet, named Moondog. Mc­Conaughey gives this sunshine sprite the laugh of a ’70s-era Burt Reynolds and the appetites of an entire fraternity on spring break. Moondog’s wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), straight out of a ’30s screwball comedy, is having an affair with a family friend, played by Snoop Dogg.

Martin Lawrence snags a few laughs as the world’s worst dolphin watch tour guide. And Zac Efron pops up as Moondog’s rehab comrade. The rehab does not take, and very quickly the party boy-men have busted out and mugged a Florida retiree for his golf cart. From there, the movie rides its own metaphoric golf cart in circles, its artful but repetitive editing turning Moondog’s life into an extended blur. As for McConaughey, he exhausts his character’s traits and mannerisms not long after Korine runs out of ideas.

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

 

Sorry Angel

⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Not rated; in subtitled French.

Theater: Uptown.

 

It took a while for this digressive French drama to get its hooks in me, but once it did, it didn’t let go. A big part of that is the character of Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), one of the most-layered film performances I’ve experienced in some time. Egotistic, mercurial, erudite, recklessly affectionate, careless, vindictive, impulsive, Jacques can turn from exasperating to heartbreaking in seconds.

The story takes place in early ’90s Paris. Jacques’ writing is going poorly, his finances are bad. He has little to do but hang out and get high. Romance ignites when he goes to a small town to oversee a production of one of his plays, an endeavor in which he has little interest. Ducking into a movie theater to avoid work, he happens upon the handsome, intellectually ambitious Arthur (Vincent Lacoste).

Jacques and Arthur negotiate their immediate attraction through a mutual wariness that comes from different places: “I can’t face a final romance,” Jacques says. They fall into a teacher/student relationship almost comfortably as they do a sexual one; one of the movie’s best scenes is a phone conversation during which Jacques delightedly gives a lesson on gay history and semiotics. The movie peels Jacques like an onion.

Glenn Kenny, New York Times