Written by: Hanna B.
A First Farewell is the debut feature of Chinese filmmaker Lina Wang that garnered a lot of attention and won prizes at the Berlinale last year. The 87 minute doc-drama-like project is set in a remote area of China’s Uighur region where Wang grew up, and is spoken in Uighur and Mandarin. It is the story of three children growing up in a rural area. Their lives are split between a traditional way of life– helping their families taking care of farm animals or cotton fields– and the modern world of Chinese school. Their only chance to build a better future is if they can properly learn Mandarin; a foreign language to them.
The movie focuses on a young, yet very determined, boy named Isa Yasan. He enjoys feeding his baby goat and helping his father and older brother Musa with agricultural work, but his priority is taking care of his sick mother. She is gravely ill and her two sons have to do everything from feeding her to making sure she does not wander outside the house and get lost. But her situation is getting worse day by day, and, to Isa’s great sadness, she has to be hospitalized far away. Not only does Isa have to say goodbye to her, but soon Musa will leave to pursue his studies in the city so he can one day make decent money. Thus, Isa is left alone with his aging father who is barely coping to keep them financially afloat.
However, no matter how bad things get at home, Isa can always find joy and comfort playing outside with his friends, Kalbinur Rahmati, and her younger brother, Alinaz Rahmati. The trio are inseparable; they do everything together from sharing pets, going to school, to helping each other with their family issues. Their relationship is candidly authentic, fun and heartwarming to witness. Even though at times, they seem completely free and wild playing in dunes or dangerously climbing trees, these non-professional young actors also manage to capture all the emotions of how deeply their characters are affected and conscious of the world around them. We can feel their anxiety or sadness, and see how abruptly one can lose their innocence as they realize their futures are not what they thought it would be. This concept especially resonates strongly in a few scenes featuring Kalbinur. She wants to make it in school, appears committed and ready to embrace a new culture, but sadly, she might be at a disadvantage to do well. And so, the normally fierce young girl’s reaction after being criticized and shamed by her teachers is quite striking and powerful. The challenges not only the students but to a greater extent their parents, are facing, are genuinely disheartening.
The filmmaker did a fantastic job tiptoeing on the fine line between the time of innocence and the loss of it, in a film that can also be seen as a coming-of-age of sorts. And since it mostly unfolds through the eyes of children shot over many months, it might bring to mind films such as Boyhood, as we see the protagonists coming to an understanding of reality and its problems, evolving with the seasons passing by. Or even films such as Capernaum and Yomedine, following kids on an “adventure-esque journey”, striving for a better life away from their impoverished childhoods. Correspondingly, A First Farewell has some truly heartbreaking moments such as the emotional and tender scene between mother and sons, as the boys, taking care of their afflicted parent, gently braided her hair.
Surprisingly, for better or worse, Wang stayed away from controversies or polemical topics linked to the region; but there are some subtle references to the dire situation of these marginalized communities and minorities.
A First Farewell, with its awe-inspiring cinematography, might at times suffer from an odd pacing or incoherent linearity, but it is best appreciated as poetically bittersweet vignettes of intimate human stories making for a well-composed and authentic picture. Filled with numerous panoramas, contemplative scenes of diverse landscapes through sunshine and snows, and coupled with a hypnotizing score that is probably not memorable but will leave a nice long-lasting taste and sense of nostalgia, the film is, as a whole, a captivating indelible experience.
A First Farewell will play at the Vancity Theater Saturday, March 7th, 2020 at 6:45 pm