In the opening sequence of Ash Is Purest White, the female protagonist rides a clunky bus though a declining mining city. In the final chapter, the male protagonist returns to the same place on a new high-speed train. Writer-director Jia Zhangke's gently comic recent-history epic spans just 17 years, but in China that's time enough to travel from the past into the future.
In American parlance, Bin (Liao Fan) is a mobster and Qiao (Zhao Tao) is his moll. Bin has recently acquired a gun, which is illegal. But he and his cohorts seem to spend more time playing mah-jong and watching Hong Kong gangster movies than disturbing the peace. When the regional crimelord visits, it's for a demonstration of his passion: Western-style ballroom dancing.
But the boss has offended someone and is murdered, off-screen. Soon, young thugs come after Bin. In the movie's principal fight scene, motorcycle-riding toughs attack Bin with fists and shovels and appear about to kill him. So Qiao pulls out that prohibited gun and fires into the air.
Both Bin and Qiao go to jail, but Qiao, who refuses to implicate the man she hopes to marry, gets the longer sentence. When she's released five years later, her relationship with Bin is not the only thing that's utterly different. China is richer and more cosmopolitan — look at all the new signs in English — and more brutal.