Roma & Ash is the Purest White

Two fabulous movies, two directors casting their illuminated eyes over their own countries’ recent pasts, and two women, who figure out, finally, how to survive the useless men they love. Mexico City in the early 1970s, in black and white, and Datong, China coal country, in the 1990s and today, in drained colour. And our heroes, Jia Zhangke and Alfonso Cuarón.

Cuarón’s Roma is exquisite. Its a story set mostly in a middle-class home, with visits to a friend’s country lodge, an escape to a barren seaside, a furniture shop as government thugs run riot on a demonstration downstairs, the cinema where heartbreak meets slapstick, a slum, and a hospital. Roma is a story of two women, one left by her husband to care for her family, without a peso of alimony, the other, the housemaid left by her boyfriend after she becomes pregnant. The maid, Cleo, is our main heroine, and she is extraordinary, savoring small pleasures, suffering big indignities, and offering constant love to someone else’s kids. Here’s the trailer:

Its quite stunning what Cuarón has achieved in 65mm black-and-white. His camera is often so unhurried; its places you in this world and imprints scenes on the back of your retina, that linger. You breathe in each scene. When there’s action to participate in, Cuarón moves his camera straight alongside his characters as they run and walk, letting the things they pass or fight through, chaotic street bustle or dark, bruising sea waves, come and go. He’s always placing similar action in the mid-distance, maids hanging wet clothes across all the rooftops, parents putting kids in cars all the way down the street. This story, partly of his childhood of 40 years ago, is nothing unusual, he seems to say.

There’s the sounds he remembers, the regular street-marching band. The knives sharpener. The dog’s barking. There’s ridiculous entertainment - a man shot from a canon in a slum, another pulling a car with his teeth on TV. Cuarón even cheekily shouts out to Gravity, his previous epic, with an old space movie clip. The two astronauts move so slowly towards each other its excruciating, unlike Bulloch and Clooney in the faster-than-bullets pace of Gravity. It was a different world, he seems to be saying.

It is a testament to Cuarón’s intelligence that the line that anchors the movie, that could have been so heavy, “We women are always alone”, is spoken drunkenly, after the wife hilariously mangles parking her car. Her husband was fastidious - but he’s barely even in the movie, he just leaves and lies to her remotely. At first Cleo seems to have found a good man too; her boyfriend tells her he’s escaped drugs and the gangs through martial arts. But it turns out those arts have just trained him in cruelty.

We don’t know how either of these women will cope, as men selfishly screw with them, but by the end, the mother has found her strength, rallying her children over grilled fish by the sea. This will be “a new adventure”, she says. And Cleo comes back from a horrific experience at the hospital to find love in her employer’s family.

Roma starts with water as its sloshes down a courtyard drain; water is thrown uselessly on a forest fire; Cleo’s waters break; and the movie ends on a dark beach. They crash on us, the waves, constantly, and somehow some of us survive.

In Ash is the Purest White, Jia Zhangke also tells the story of a woman alongside that of his country. Its all ups and downs, but mostly downs. Qiao is the smart girlfriend, an equal, of Bin, a small-town gangster, the king of his mahjong parlor. Everything seems settled, cushy for them. But then the real estate boom hits their pad, and Bin and his gang are out-mobbed by a superior operation. Qiao saves his life, knowing well she’ll pay a heavy price. Metal bars on spine, and a gun is involved. Here’s the trailer.

Cut to a few years later, a bigger, different China, when she goes looking for his help. But he’s found a new role to play, and a more modern girl, and doesn’t want to know. So Qiao, homeless, robbed, and disoriented tries to figure out what she’s supposed to do. She has day-to-day mob skills, which she employs. She almost takes a random train ride out to Xinjiang to work at an aliens fun-park (one of Jia’s running gags), but in the end returns home. Where she sets up a little life for herself. When Bin shows up again, well, he’s just one bitter disappointment after another. Jia throws all the detritus of China today in too - everyone films friends arguing with their smartphones, men throwing banquets usually have mistresses, state-enterprise bosses always screw their workers.

Roma and Ash are about men who need to be cared for, but who are unable or unwilling to care back, and how women, coping with all the disadvantages, learn to survive. And they have to swim, or at least, tread water in the big changes taking Mexico and China too. It was always thus. The difference is that Jia knows all about loneliness, while Cuarón’s world is still full of love.

Like all good Jia movies, his characters are untethered, upping sticks and moving anywhere across a vast but indifferent land. But Roma is ultimately a story of how a new family, a non-traditional one, is formed. And it happens on a single street which doesn’t change much, where family and friends are close by. Ash is desolate, and its protagonists end up with only themselves - and that barely. It is tougher in China.