Jia Zhang-ke was never going to make a conventional jianghu underworld movie, and even if genre elements and hard- edged character details are woven into Ash Is Purest White, this typically unhurried, long-span drama is very much of a piece with the Chinese auteur’s contemplative body of work. Starting in 2001 and ending on a melancholy New Year’s Eve that ushers in 2018, the film provides a transfixing leading role for Jia’s wife and indispensable muse Zhao Tao. She plays a woman from a dying coal-mining town in love with a local mobster, their complicated relationship unfolding against the backdrop of a country changing at a dizzying pace. […] The evolution of contemporary China, of course, has always been Jia’s central theme as tradition has made way for modernity, bringing both losses and gains […].
This latest feature is Jia’s first not shot by regular cinematographer Yu Lik Wai. Noted French d.p. Eric Gautier steps in with assurance, fluidly integrating footage from different generation DV cameras that allow the visual textures to change with the passing of the years. Gautier has a sharp eye for bold splashes of scorching color, but the look of the film generally is composed, […] lending gorgeous scope to the occasional panoramic shots of landscapes or architecture. […] The performances of the two leads are riveting.
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter