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Jia Zhangke Film “Ash is Purest White” Makes Barack Obama’s 2019 Movies List

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Amid the flurry of end of year (and this year, end of decade) lists that inundate the internet at this time of year, one tastemaker’s selections in particular increasingly grab headlines and waves of online attention. President Barack Obama has been sharing his favorite music, TV and films lists for some time now, and this year he’s gone for a few China-related works.

Alas, he’s not suddenly developed a penchant for Uyghur rap or (perhaps more fittingly) Chinese drone music, but he has picked out a couple of quality films with strong China connections for his best of 2019 lists. One — unsurprisingly — is American Factory, a documentary that he and Michelle Obama helped bring to Netflix earlier this year, and which sparked a little backlash in China.

Related:

Chinese Billionaire at Heart of Obamas-Backed Movie “American Factory” Responds to Criticisms

But the other is “Sixth Generation” auteur Jia Zhangke‘s excellent Ash is Purest White. Selected to compete for the Palme d’Or in 2018 (the film didn’t make it to a US release until this year), Ash is Purest White follows gangster’s girlfriend Qiao who takes the fall and does time for her man, only to emerge from prison to find he’s moved on to someone else. Played by Jia’s wife and long-term muse Zhao Tao, Qiao sets out to hunt down her ex, but this is far from a formulaic revenge thriller, with Jia working in somber reflections, ballroom dancing, the changes effecting the Three Gorges area, and even a UFO visitation along the way.

It’s an extraordinary film, and deserves its place on Obama’s list besides the likes of Marriage Story, The Irishman, and Parasite.

Another film on the former President’s list in which China has a significant role is Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Starring Awkwafina and “based on an actual lie,” the movie sees a Chinese-American family organizing a wedding as a pretense to gather the whole family together after the matriarch of the clan is diagnosed with lung cancer, a fact which is withheld from her.

Related:

“The Farewell” Gets Intimate with the Gaps Between Being Asian, Being Chinese, and Being American

For Barack Obama’s full list of favorite 2019 movies, see here. And to check out RADII’s list of films from the last decade that will help you gain a better understanding of China, go here:

25 Films From the 2010s That Will Help You Understand China

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.