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Cannes 2018: Ash is Purest White, Girls of the Sun, Girl

The crowds on the sidewalks of the rue d’Antibes, the main drag of Cannes, were treated to a rare sight this afternoon. A wedding party formed a slow impromptu parade down the narrow street, horns blowing, and the bride and groom leading in a white convertible with the top down. The newlyweds sat atop the back seat in their wedding finery. She was grinning and waving wildly to the crowds like she had just won a prize, her big bouquet held aloft in her ring hand. In a year when the role of women is under discussion at the festival, it was a reminder that this town yields so many different images of women, some of them on-screen today.

The distinguishing mark of the films of Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke (“A Touch of Sin,” “24 City”) is his portrayal of an insatiable appetite for life in times that change, not always for the better. His new film “Ash is Purest White,” premiering in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, presents heroine Qiao (Zhao Tao, a regular in Jia’s films), a woman who passes through the searing fire of love for a fickle man and comes out as strong and pure as steel.

The story opens in 2001, in a failing coal-mining town in northwestern China (director Jia’s hometown), where Bin (Liao Fan), nightclub owner and smalltime mobster, lords it over his men and calls the shots in the local political establishment. Clever, resourceful and attractive but not beautiful, Qiao is his girlfriend, the gang moll who has the respect of a princess by virtue of her relationship with the man in charge.

The culture of Hong Kong movies, a decade or so past its prime, has seeped into this backward town. The Wong Fei-hong theme music from a string of martial arts action hits blares incongruously to a vaudeville-like nightclub act in Bin’s club, while Bin and his guys adopt the swagger and bravado of screen idols like Chow Yun-fat and Ti Lung. Jia adds the haunting Cantopop ballad by Sally Yeh, the theme song from John Woo’s “The Killer” to the soundtrack, becoming its own poignantly recurring theme in the story of Qiao.

Life is bold, tacky, and all encompassing in Jia’s vision. Time and again the drama is punctuated by crazy pop culture set pieces, like when the throngs in Bin’s packed club dizzily dance, hop and throw up their arms in unison to "Y.M.C.A." by the Village People, a scene so vibrant you want to get up and dance in your seat.

On a hillside walk, Bin shows Qiao his illegal gun, and placing his hand around her reluctant one, forces off a shot. “For people like us it’s kill or be killed,” he says, explaining his imagined gangland ethos with a naiveté that will haunt both of their futures. A short time later, Bin’s cocky invulnerability comes to an end with an attack on his car by a youth gang bent on bludgeoning Bin and his driver to a bloody death on the street. Grabbing the gun, Qiao saves their lives, and Jia places her in the center of an iconic shot seen in a thousand action films, gun raised to the sky, the silent crowd drawing back in fear and awe.

“Ash Is Purest White” jumps forward in time, when Qiao, who has taken the fall for possession of Bin’s gun, is just completing a five-year prison term. The location changes to the city of Fengjie on the Yangtze River, in the spectacular Three Gorges region, where Qiao arrives by boat in search of Bin. With its towering cliffs, broad, swiftly flowing river and fog and pollution-shrouded skies, this is prime Jia territory, the location for his 2006 film “Still Life.”

The traditional movie moral code of the gang, centered on loyalty and self-sacrifice, has become authentically Qiao’s, while Bin, a coward now seeking to avoid her, is on a downward path of emasculation. As an actress, Zhao has never been better than in this role, demonstrating an impressive ability to reveal emotion through the slightest facial expression. Bin’s new girlfriend, an arrogant beauty, sits Qiao down to boast her own ascendancy. Qiao’s passive control is a marvel of subtle put-down. Jia also gives Qiao some semi-comic scenes as she makes her way through the city, scoring money and food by a series of small but effective cons.

As the film moves on again in time and place, Jia’s camera takes in a swath of China by train and other conveyances, through landscapes and landmarks that have been seen in his earlier films and have the aspect of much loved touchstones in all their scarred natural beauty and industrial ugliness. Qiao, rejected and bereft, is now alone and apparently content as the owner of a rural mahjong gambling parlor, back where she started, operating out of what was the former back room of Bin’s club. She has not seen the last of Bin, a broken man who returns only to again prove his unworthiness. Qiao’s final triumph is survival; Jia’s open-ended message one of a woman’s endurance. 

“Girls of the Sun,” by French director Eva Husson (“Bang Gang”), a drama about a battalion of Kurdish women fighting ISIS in North Kurdistan, is the first to premiere among the only three films directed women selected for this year’s Cannes competition. The French journalist Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot of “My King” and “Polisse”), who is embedded with these fighters for the duration of the film’s war story, admits at one point to questioning whether there is still a value to telling the truth. “Girls of the Sun” is a well-meaning, timid tribute that follows the usual pattern of the war correspondent subgenre, glorifying its brave subjects without taking any risks.

Mathilde arrives at the stronghold of the female fighters, and after some mild resistance from commander Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani of “Paterson”) the two women find a common bond. Mathilde was widowed when her husband, also a journalist, was blown up in Libya. Bahar’s husband was executed by ISIS on the same night that she was captured along with thousands of other women and little girls of the Yazidi religious minority, including her sister fighters, to be beaten, starved, and sold again and again as a sex slave. Those women who are motivated to join the armed resistance achieve a double revenge when they kill, for the ISIS men believe that they cannot be admitted to paradise if killed by a woman.

“Girls of the Sun” is choppy in its construction and sanitized in its imagery, alternating between scenes set in the abandoned buildings and tunnels where the fighters are holed up waiting for an attack, and flashbacks to Bahar’s life during captivity, including her escape. In the film’s press notes, director Husson states that she did not wish to depict the victimization of the Yazidi women in a way that could be regarded as voyeurism. She brings up a valid dilemma, but doesn’t find any effective way to solve the problem of making a film that includes atrocities to women and children but does not exploit them.

What it takes to be a woman is a question at the heart of the Belgian film “Girl” by Lukas Dhont, presented in the A Certain Regard section of the festival. As a first feature, it competes for the Camera d’Or, and is also in competition for the independently sponsored and awarded Queer Palm, an LGBT prize. This coming-of-age film centers on a sensitive performance by Viktor Polster as Lara, a 15-year-old ballerina-in-training. A new student desperate to pass her probation period at the country’s most prestigious ballet academy, winsome blonde Lara has talent, technique, and the requisite long willowy body. She also has a penis.

With the support of her loving single dad, the guidance of a team of doctors, and the acceptance of classmates, largely blasé about her difference, Lara is undergoing hormone therapy and preparing for the transitional surgery when she is eighteen. Her situation is presented as about as ideal as it can get, and yet it’s not. Between generalized adolescent angst and Lara’s resolve that most decisions and pleasures in life must remain on hold until her transition is complete, much goes wrong.

“Girl” suffers from too many agendas. On one hand, this is a film about the training and trials of a ballerina, which leads to the sameness of lengthy and repetitious rehearsals and classes, with lines of sweaty dancers en pointe, with shots of bleeding toes and taped ankles. On the other hand, it’s most specifically a film about Lara, a transgender woman, with a carefully presented informational side of medical and psychological detail. Director Dhont blends it all well enough to make a highly sympathetic middle-of-the road drama, but not a deeply affecting one, despite his questionable choice to go for shock value in the end.

Barbara Scharres

Barbara Scharres is the former Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

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