ASH (2017) review

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In Chongqing, police detective Chen Weikun (Nie Yuan) investigates the murder of one Ma Xudong (Yang Yiwei), whose throat was cut with surgical precision in a theater. His suspicions land squarely on the victim’s stepson Xu Feng (Xin Peng), a young factory worker who visibly loathed his violent, abusive stepfather, and would have wanted to protect his mother – but both have a strong alibi. Then there’s a mysterious figure stalking the crime scene, wearing a surgical mask, but detective Chen cannot prove anything, and the case goes cold, until ten years later he spots a prominent surgeon, Wang Dong (Luo Jin) wearing the same mask – a coincidence which rekindles his will to solve the case. Yet it turns out that this is not a coincidence, as a series of flashbacks show that Wang Dong once knew Xu Feng.

Li Xiaofeng’s Ash uses some of the most well-trodden arthouse thriller tropes: a pace that is not so much deliberate as it is deliberately endless, swathing every single scene in long, unnatural silences, with improbably delayed reactions; a gratuitous chronological disorder to the narrative, obviously meant to create an illusion of complexity where there is only simple – albeit efficient – characters, relationships and motivations; and an “experimental” musical score that tingles mildly and rumbles weakly with tepid sound design (not every one is Cliff Martinez). Among its more striking attributes are Joewi Verhoeven’s bold cinematography, whose wild, garish use of reds, greens and blues makes Dario Argento’s Suspiria look like cinéma-vérité, and a superb turn by Luo Jin, whose mix of steely resolve and raw frailty is not far removed from the final performances of Leslie Cheung. The plot draws inspiration from one of Alfred Hitchcock’s classics (to say which one would be a spoiler in itself), but favors a study of envy and guilt over any sort of thrills. A respectable move – if only there was more to chew on.

Long Story Short: Visually striking but narratively limp, Ash might have benefitted from less arthouse navel-gazing and more of the fiendish glee of the Alfred Hitchcock classic from which it borrows a key plot point. **

 

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