Passion and politics merge in the exquisite doomed romances of ‘Ash Is Purest White,’ ‘Cold War’

The 71st Cannes Film Festival is underway (May 8 through Saturday), and L.A. Times critic Justin Chang is there, seeing as many movies as possible and writing about it for a day-by-day, film-by-film diary. This is one in a series of entries spanning from the opening festivities to closing night. For more entries and reviews, click here.

After a slow start, the 71st Cannes Film Festival has found its footing with two early Palme d’Or contenders, “Ash Is Purest White” and “Cold War” (“Zimna Wojna”). Although these films could scarcely be more different in form and feel — one is sprawling and expansive, the other taut and precise — each is a story of thwarted yet oddly resilient love, as well as a beautiful marriage of the political and the personal.

That particular synthesis is nothing new for Jia Zhangke, the revered Chinese writer-director whose work brings the chaos of life in his rapidly evolving country into hyper-crisp digital focus. In “Ash Is Purest White,” he subtly distills nearly two decades of gradual social change into the story of a small-town gangster and his moll. The movie opens in 2001, in the northern village of Datong, where Guo Bin (Liao Fan), a member of the jianghu underworld, runs a mahjong parlor and enjoys the sycophantic attention of his comrades and underlings.

But from the start, it’s Bin’s girlfriend, Qiao (Zhao Tao), who magnetizes the camera’s attention, whether she’s playfully socking his buddies or hitting the dance floor while “YMCA” blasts in the background. A fiercely devoted partner to Bin, she more than holds her own in this masculine enclave, and her own belief in the brotherly codes of the jianghu, a commitment referenced by the title, runs startlingly deep.

When Bin is attacked by local thugs, it is Qiao who fatefully intervenes and pays the steepest price. From there, the film undergoes a series of thrilling narrative reversals but always keeps Qiao at the fore, grounding its portrait of long-term social and technological flux with the kind of gutsy, lovelorn heroine who would be right at home in a 1940s Hollywood melodrama.

Qiao and Bin continue to cross paths over the years, at times enjoying the odd moment of tenderness, only to have the past come rushing back with seething, explosive force. But their difficult present and uncertain future weigh on them no less heavily.

Jia likes to hold his characters in a tight visual embrace, then cut away to something — a train navigating the countryside, or the stars shimmering in the night sky — that places their drama into awe-stirring perspective. This is a movie about how time and circumstance conspire to make dazed, restless wanderers of us all.

I’ve tended to run hot and cold on Jia’s work, whose gently bobbing, observational camerawork and leisurely narrative rhythms show the clear influence of the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, but often to less intuitive, more calculated effect. In recent years, his work has become less formally severe and bolder in its embrace of genre, as seen in his two most recent Cannes entries: “A Touch of Sin” (2013), a thriller about individuals driven to acts of rebellion, and “Mountains May Depart” (2015), a soulful heartbreaker about a family fractured by greed.

In its swirl of violence and emotion, the new movie feels like a summation of those two most recent pictures, even as it braids together settings and story elements from Jia’s earlier films “Unknown Pleasures” (2002) and “Still Life” (2008), his surreally tinged docu-fiction about the incalculable impact of the Three Gorges Dam project.

But no familiarity with Jia’s earlier work is necessary to appreciate “Ash Is Purest White,” which is fierce, gripping, emotionally generous and surprisingly funny: The movie’s most entertaining moments find Qiao using her hard-earned street smarts to pull herself out of short-term hunger and poverty. Meanwhile, even those accustomed to seeing Zhao in Jia’s movies (the two are married and collaborate frequently) might be taken aback by the depths of her acting here. “Mountains May Depart” was a breakthrough for her, and she surpasses it here with the richest, most subtly complex performance she’s given to date.

 
Joanna Kulig in the movie “Cold War.” Amazon Studios

Another powerhouse turn by a female actor, Joanna Kulig, is the mesmerizing centerpiece of “Cold War” (“Zimna Wojna”), the latest from the Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski and a fine companion piece to his Oscar-winning 2014 film, “Ida.” The two pictures have much in common: crystalline black-and-white camerawork, a boxy aspect ratio, bursts of jazz music and an exacting sense of narrative concision. (Perhaps even more exacting in the case of “Cold War,” which compresses a decade into 88 minutes.)

But where “Ida” felt exploratory and open-ended, the story of a young woman’s inner awakening, “Cold War” is a tempestuous romance that begins in passion and ends in futility and despair. When they first meet in 1949, Zula (Kulig), a strikingly beautiful young singer, is auditioning for a musical ensemble led by the older Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a conductor and pianist. The sparks between them are immediately apparent, especially to Wiktor’s co-director, Irena (Agata Kulesza, as supremely cynical here as she was in “Ida”), and before long the two are having an affair behind the scenes.

The troupe’s song-and-dance performances, drawing on a rich repertoire of rural folk music, are aimed at restoring a sense of pride and tradition in a country still ravaged by World War II and now under communist rule. But when the troupe effectively becomes an instrument of Stalinist propaganda, Wiktor leaves but Zula stays.

Over the next several years, during which her star rises while he remains in poverty and exile, they will meet again on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Their need for one another may be undimmed, but the possibility of a happy ending, of a scenario in which these two could break free of the paths they’ve chosen, seems more remote with each bittersweet reunion.

“Cold War,” which Amazon Studios will release in the U.S., is both a globe-trotting postwar romance and a work of exquisite self-containment. There is something both tender and ruthless about the way Pawlikowski pares away connective tissue; by granting his characters only a few privileged moments together every few years or so, he makes us feel the cruel deprivations of time and distance on a structural level.

This is an achingly personal story — the romantic leads are named after Pawlikowski’s own parents, to whom the film is dedicated — and also a sadly resigned one. At times you want more from the characters, a richer sense of emotional interiority or animating incident. (They come to life mainly in their music, and so does “Cold War,” its soundtrack churning with everything from rock to Bach.) But there’s something fitting and starkly poignant about the way so much of their story has been deliberately subtracted, as though lost to the cruel, relentless tides of history.

Sorry Angel
Vincent Lacoste, left, and Pierre Deladonchamps in the movie “Sorry Angel.” MK2 Films

‘Sorry Angel’ is an unapologetic pleasure

Continuing the rich strain of love stories set in the recent and not-so-recent past, the competition unveiled another strong entry earlier this week with “Sorry Angel” (“Plaire, Aimer et Courir Vite”), a superbly acted romance from the French writer-director Christophe Honoré (“Dans Paris,” “Love Songs”). Set in 1993, it follows a 35-year-old Parisian writer, Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), and the bond he forges with a 22-year-old Breton student, Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), whom he meets on an out-of-town trip.

Jacques is looking after an ex-lover with AIDS, and is in a less advanced condition of the illness himself. None of which keeps Arthur, eagerly embracing his own sexual awakening, from throwing himself into their relationship sans reservations. Chalk it up to his feelings of youthful invincibility, or perhaps the era’s rapidly shifting, destigmatizing attitudes toward AIDS. Or perhaps it’s simply that these two men are determined to make the most of their time together, especially in light of all the obligations — to friends, family, school and work — that have a way of looming into the frame.

What’s bracing about “Sorry Angel” is that it refuses to allow the specificity of its characters — specifically drawn and superbly played — to be obscured or flattened by the drama of terminal illness. Neither man is made nicer or more palatable than he has to be; Jacques, in particular, is unafraid to revel in his occasional fits of nastiness. The lines have a consistently witty, acerbic sting; the voices we hear belong to men who are at once entirely comfortable in their skin and yet unafraid to discover new things about themselves.

The difference in age and outlook between Jacques and Arthur is both defined and bridged by their love of literature. The dialogue teems with discussions of Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, and Honoré’s intellectually capacious script doesn’t treat these references as digressive or ornamental. Among other things, “Sorry Angel” is a lovingly detailed affirmation of gay male identity, albeit one that never feels as diagrammed or predetermined as that description.

“Enough of this soppiness,” a side character says at one point, armoring herself and the movie against the sentimentalism that threatens to creep in. It’s this refusal to milk tears that makes the film, for all its flippancy on the surface (English-language title included), so stealthily moving. More than once the characters seem caught off guard by their capacity for emotion, a condition that they are likely to share with the audience.

justin.chang@latimes.com

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