Thursday, July 11, 2019

NYAFF ’19: A First Farewell

Sadly, China’s Uyghur population are probably second only to the Falun Dafa when it comes to being demonized by the Party’s propaganda apparatus. The ethnic group, largely based in the Northwest Xinjiang region happen to be Muslim, so they are practically synonymous with terrorism in the state media. Of course, most Uyghurs just want to raise their families and get by. Unfortunately for Isa and his friends, the escalating Mandarin language requirements will make their lives difficult in Wang Lina’s A First Farewell, which screens today at the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Since his father and brother Musa must work tending the goats, Isa is forced to look after his ailing mother, who has been on a steep decline after contracting meningitis. Alas, he does not have much time to be a kid. Yet, he has picture book-worthy friends in Kalbinur and her little brother, Alinaz. Of the trio, Isa is probably the most proficient at Mandarin, but certainly not to an extent that will impress his stern teachers.

Needless to say, Isa has little time to study, but his father intends to rectify that. After a long period of agonizing, he has finally resolved to place his wife in a nursing home. However, both Isa and Musa bitterly resent the plan. The wider community does not cotton much to it either, but they do not shoulder the burden of her constant care.

First Farewell is an enormously empathetic portrait of a community under multiple stresses. Farewells are a constant fact of life for them, because of the region’s stagnant economy. Yet, despite announcing the theme in her title, Wang never belabors the point. In fact, she displays a rather light touch when it comes to addressing her themes. Nevertheless, when Kalbinur’s mother tells her life is about learning to say goodbye, it rings with significance.

Isa Yasan is terrific as his namesake, almost resembling a Uyghur version of the kid in The Bicycle Thieves. He is wonderfully natural responding to Kalbinur Rahmati and Alinaz Rahmati as their namesakes. Yet, the complicated and touching rapport he develops with Musa Yasan (playing Brother Musa) leaves the deepest impression.

First Farewell is a beautiful film to look at, thanks to Li Yong’s striking cinematography, which perfectly captures the beauty and loneliness of the Xinjiang landscape. Still, the film is sometimes too quiet for its own good. First Farewell is livelier and more engaging than many a slow-cinema docu-hybrid, but it is cut from similar aesthetic cloth. Recommended for those who appreciate well-crafted but deliberately-paced coming of age tales, A First Farewell screens tonight (7/11), as part of NYAFF ’19.