At the turn of the last decade, the writer-director Jia Zhang-ke made a decisive break for it. Having signed off on a series of elliptical works (notably 2006's Still Life and 2008's 24 City) which wouldn't have looked out of place as video art, he began a series of genre-influenced movies that consolidated his position as the conscience of Chinese cinema - the filmmaker best placed to capture the effects the country's rapid capitalisation has had on his compatriots - while lending him a renewed commercial appeal. You could claim this transformation as itself a consequence of capitalism - or at least a consequence of that strain of capitalism that insists the individual must adapt to market demands or risk being deemed surplus to requirements. Yet it seems equally likely that this shift in the filmmaker's thinking was down to a woman. In his early films, Jia appeared less interested in people as flesh-and-blood presences than as abstracts - vulnerable dots on changeable horizons. Since marrying the actress Zhao Tao in 2012, however, Jia has found himself obliged to come up with roles worthy of his bride's striking presence: the vengeful sauna receptionist in 2013's A Touch of Sin, the lovelorn heroine of 2015's Mountains May Depart, and now, in Ash is Purest White, a canary in the coalmine of China as it was in the first years of this century.
Seasoned viewers may be reminded of those much-exported period films Zhang Yimou completed thirty years ago - at another time, in another world - which offered up the director's muse Gong Li as part of some very pretty scenery. Yet over the course of the seventeen years described in the course of Ash, Zhao's Qiao is constantly moving against the grain of Chinese society - which is why she perhaps appears so at risk. When we're introduced to her in 2001, it's in a cold, hard mining town being sold off for private property, much to the despair of Qiao's radio-operator father. In search of shelter, she's taken up with Bin (Liao Fan, an actor with something of Powers Boothe's implacability), the heavy who runs the local gambling den and maintains friendly links with the developers. This gets Qiao in the room when big decisions are made, and bundles of money with which she intends to buy Dad one of those new houses; Zhao is particularly good at suggesting a woman who's grown used to the finer things in life. Still, we're left wondering just how much cover a brute like Bin can provide. The best he can do, it transpires, is hand her a stolen gun and a terse refrain of "It's every man for himself". When Qiao uses the weapon - not in anger, but to fire a warning shot after Bin is attacked in the street - she's the one who ends up serving prison time, as Jia pursues a tragic irony that speaks to the imbalances of power in this developing country: Qiao is willing to offer her man greater protection than he ever did her.
The second act - in which, removed of her former securities, Qiao re-enters a world that is all but unrecognisable in search of the guy who betrayed her - underlines how Ash stands as a synthesis of Jia new and old, a film built on earlier achievements. Early on, we watch the gangsters partying to the strains of the Village People's "YMCA", the kind of immediately recognisable soundtrack cue that would have been unthinkable amid the slower-burn likes of 24 City (but here follows Mountains May Depart's ironic deployment of "Go West"). In almost any other context, the song would be a cue for celebration; Jia cuts in what looks like documentary footage of workers in camps, contrasted with images of a newly leisured class in such a way as to flag up a growing divide in Chinese society. Qiao's search for Bin will take her to the Three Gorges Dam, site of Jia's Noughties inquiries, and shining symbol of the nation's development; the renewed focus positions the Dam as an Eastern analogue to the American West, a destination that has attracted exactly the chancers, swindlers and snake oil merchants those earlier films worried they might. The Dam itself is as sturdy a metaphor for the double-edged nature of state capitalism as 21st century cinema may have happened across, both a stunning logistical and architectural achievement, and a void built on bulldozed homes for the benefit of an elite few. Jia returns here to check the levels, not just of the waters, but the compassion in the hearts of those living thereabouts.
He does so with a sharply defined focal point in Zhao, quietly exceptional as Qiao transforms from cigar-puffing moll to meekly vulnerable patsy, becoming only more sympathetic as the extent to which the character is a victim of circumstance - a middling fish reduced to small fry and released into a bigger pond yet - becomes clear. In an especially telling episode, Qiao shows up at the Chamber of Commerce where Bin now works - a pointed development in itself - and fails to trigger the building's automatic doors, or attract the attention of the woman behind the desk there: the insider has suddenly become an outsider, and invisible with it. Jia sees her, of course: he sees the appetites that this flirtation with the big time has instilled in her, the needs (and neediness) it's left her with, the desperate sadness that attaches itself to her quest for renewed meaning and purpose. We are, evidently, lightyears away from the pretty complacency of the Zhang-Gong collaborations - the final third takes in UFOlogy and urban futurism, as if life has sped up beyond our own experiences, before describing the rut these leftovers wind up in - but this eminently absorbing and involving drama confirms confirms Jia, a master of cinematic space and time, as among the best guides we now have to what's up in China, and just what China might be up to.
Ash is Purest White opens in selected cinemas from today, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.