These aren’t your everyday gangsters.

“Righteousness and loyalty” — that’s the code of the jianghu — a particular underworld of apparently ‘principled’ Chinese mobsters and street thugs run by a devious but respected player named Bin. And why shouldn’t he earn the locals’ obeisance? The Chinese government doesn’t demonstrate any reliable concern for their own people. If the working class needs to get something done, they’ll turn to someone who gets things done. Just watch how, in the opening minutes, Bin quiets an escalating clash between bickering men in a fight over money, then turns his attention to cleaning up a housing development that is, he’s told, “haunted.” Resourceful guy, and more reliable than China’s sovereign powers.

Fan Liao as Bin in Ash is Purest White.

And there, at Bin’s side, whole-heartedly devoted, is his girlfriend Qiao. Look at how she has absorbed her privilege, Bin’s favor, all the way to her bones, so that she slinks and slides and struts with the confidence  of a cat through Jianghu Land. Watch her spin through the center of Bin’s dreamy dance club, where mobsters and their molls celebrate their glory days singing “YMCA”: “They have everything for you men to enjoy / You can hang out with all the boys….” Watch her surprise the back streets of a troubled community where the needy poor approach her like royalty. In her glamorous costumes, she flaunts her freedom to make decisions in Bin’s name. And she would laugh if you told her how quickly it will all fall apart.

Tao Zhao as Qiao, a woman whose world is about to turn upside down.

This is how Jia Zhangke’s latest film Ash is Purest White begins — like a flashy hybrid of Wong Kar-Wai’s kaleidoscopically exhilarating expressionism and Martin Scorsese’s gritty gangster dramas of the ’70s and ’80s. But we have a long way to go, and we’re about to veer into a subtler and more challenging kind of drama, an intimate and interior struggle that serves as a poignant portrait of political desperation. And you might even be reminded, as I was, of how Krzysztof Kieslowski, in Blue, drew us down into the continental shift of a woman’s heart during a season of loss.

Qiao is the central character of this epic story, which is as much about how China has changed over the narrative’s 17-year span from the early 2000s to tomorrow. We follow Qiao’s precipitous fall from privilege into prison, and then into… what?

If this is about “righteousness and loyalty,” what does the arc of Qiao’s story suggest about the rewards of such virtues — of the lack of them?

Bin gives Qiao an illegal lesson in how to pull a trigger.

I mentioned Blue as a reference point, but only as a way of praising Zhao Tao’s extraordinary performance. She gives Qiao the same kind of unspeakable interior complexity as Juliette Binoche’s Julie.

In many ways, this character’s arc is the opposite of Julie’s. Both begin in the confidence of a relationship, both are catapulted out of that confidence when a long drive ends in calamity. Both are devastated, and suffer a long purgatorial grief. Both are worried about ailing parents who are free-falling into despair as their worlds fall apart. And both are jarringly awakened to betrayals and the realization that what they thought they had was not at all what they thought they had. But where Julie was independently wealthy and responded to trouble with a flight into solitude, defiant independence, and indulgence, Qiao is desperate to restore her connections, rekindle her love, re-establish her partnership and power, and — most importantly — find the resources to merely survive. For both Julie and Qiao, Another man will emerge as a possible new partner, but these new suitors couldn’t be more different in what they offer and represent. Where Julie’s is a story of a begrudging turn toward new possibilities and healing, Qiao’s is one of demanding “righteousness and loyalty” even though the man who taught her that code has no intention of fulfilling it. She seems doomed to suffer, driven to delusion in her adherence to a code that no one else believes in.

Qiao plays Bin’s conscience on a night when his weaknesses come into the light.

Zhao traverses this difficult and dramatic character arc without overplaying a moment. Over the film’s three chapters, she convincingly ages Qiao from being Bin’s feisty, sexy girlfriend to suffering as a bedraggled prisoner to raging as a jilted lover to despairing as an embittered caretaker. Her harrowing silences and penetrating stares suggest subterranean turmoil — which is appropriate, given the title, and given the important scenic backdrop: a lush, green, dormant volcano that eventually turns dull as a cinder. She’s amazing.

But this isn’t just melodrama. Qiao’s journey is strange for the ways in which it zigzags between the violent beats of gangster stories, the angst of troubled historical romances (Cold War), flirtations with science fiction (like Jia’s own Still Life), and not-so-subtle political commentary.

The bullet train gives passengers a view of a world abandoned and betrayed.

At IndieWire, David Ehrlich calls this “a loveless love story,” and it often feels that way — Qiao’s devotion to hard-hearted Bin is a puzzling mix of materialism and madness. She tries to leverage her privilege to provide hope for her poor, bitter, working-class father, whose failures and disillusionment take the shape of rants against injustices toward workers, but she will become a similar crutch for Bin himself, as his seeming-sovereignty comes to ruin. In both situations, it’s hard to see how either man’s yearning for strength is a cause worthy of Qiao’s resilient service, given their disrespect and disregard for her.

Things become surreal before her journey is over. But the two questions that keep rising to the surface — for both Qiao and for the Chinese people — are exactly those of righteousness and loyalty: By what code do you measure righteousness? To whom have you pledged loyalty, and how is that working out for you?

While this ambitious and unusual epic from Jia Zhangke didn’t quite sustain my suspension of disbelief all the way through, it has some incredibly compelling and unexpected sequences realized within a mis-en-scene of murky colors and pulsing music; panoramic (and heavily symbolic) scenery; vast and heavily populated sets; a terrifying and spectacular attack during a night drive.

Zhangke’s panoramic backdrops make it easy to get lost with Qiao in an immersive, unmerciful world made of money.

What’s more, it has one of the most intriguing third acts of any film I can recall.

And I cannot explain why it haunts me without getting into some substantial spoilers — so, proceed only if you have seen the film.

In Part Two, Qiao endures her prison sentence until she is set free and finds no one waiting to welcome her.

She goes looking for Bin, but the world has changed too much — most vividly evident in the rise of the new Yangtze river and how it has wiped out a whole world of families, homes, and traditions dating back centuries for the sake of money and tourism. What little money she has left and her ID are stolen — that is, her neighbors won’t hesitate to erase who she really is, and she won’t find any help. When she tracks down Bin, he’s risen above the realities of life on the street, and he’s with a younger woman. He’s also a coward, too terrified to face his past.

This exposure of Bin as a fool and an opportunist feels like a larger referendum on Chinese leadership as delusional, ignorant, and heartless. Note Qiao’s desperate scheme for stealing money from unfaithful, conniving rich guys: The trap in the trick involves confronting them about mistresses they’ve neglected while their families celebrate in the next room.

When Qiao does finally find Bin, what follows is a scene of regret, unfathomable grief, and honesty so raw that I found myself expecting to find Qiao waking up from a dream. The dream-like quality isn’t easy to shake; it feels like a fantasy inspired by In the Mood for Love.

As we watch Qiao awaken to the hypocrisy of the system on which she bet everything, she seems utterly lost. So we believe that she might make one last desperate gamble, running away with an opportunistic con-man, a child of capitalism, who is just as much a fraud as anybody else. It’s the only way she knows to succeed. We have to wonder if she’s isn’t so helplessly dependent that she cannot imagine a life anywhere but at a man’s side. Perhaps she was never as capable and as successful as she thought she was.

Ultimately, it strikes me as a bold critique of a government that relentlessly abuses a gullible and almost-helpless people, leaders who make promises they never intend to keep, who exploit and neglect the working class, and who constantly strive for a superficial form of success that traumatizes and burns its disillusioned people like fuel. Once again, Zhangke sets the story against the troubling historical backdrop of the Yangtze’s rising waters: the government’s devastating, money-driven decisions, and the sufferings of the poor who are driven like desperate cattle back and forth across the country in search of work and security. But it doesn’t feel redundant; this is a very different story than what we saw play out in Still Life. This film goes so far as to suggest that the people have to hope that local gangs will take better care of them than the government, even as it exposes the hollow heart of toxic masculinity.

And when she steps off a train under the night sky and witnesses something that suggests that this movie might not fit the genre we thought it was, another possibility entirely opens up.

One thing I haven’t read in any review — perhaps you have, and if so, please send me a link — is the possibility that all Part Three isn’t actually happening at all except in Qiao’s crumbling imagination.

How likely is it that she climbs back to the top of the crime world and becomes a sort of Godmother to the same community of crooks that Bin once ruled?

How likely are they to respect her as the queen she thought she was when, in fact, she was a disposable agent who failed to preserve Bin’s vanity?

How likely are those crooks to be in the same place, in the same balance of rivalries, so many years later?

Are we supposed to remember that these high-rises were described, early in the film, as “haunted”?

If this is all really happening to Qiao, then why, in the last shots of the film, does the building — and even the neighborhood — seem deserted, with Qiao being watched not by neighbors but by unattended surveillance cameras, what’s left of her life burning away in the deathly white glow of a digital display?

I’m inclined to think that this most tragic of interpretations is also be the most likely. It only enhances and strengthens the film’s political commentary and the depth of the loss at its center: the destruction that comes from believing what men in power tell you, and from setting your hopes on the financial rewards of bargaining with the devil.