All the signs of a weepy incurable disease movie show themselves early in Asia, Israeli filmmaker Ruthy Pribar‘s tender debut film. But slowly, subtly, Asia sets itself apart from the rest of its sentimental cohorts and shows itself to be a moving and poignant mother-daughter drama of a different kind.
Unorthodox breakout star Shira Haas is the rebellious teenage daughter of Asia (Alena Yiv), a vivacious young mom who had her daughter Vika when she was a little more than a teenager herself. The two share a closeness that was more akin to sisters than mother and daughter, but that relationship had recently started to change as Vika had begun to crave her own independence and privacy, even as the creeping onset of a degenerative disease prevents that even more.
There is no teary diagnosis scene, no explosive breakdown from either Vika or Asia as we learn the details of the disease that are rendering Vika’s limbs useless; we’ve seen all that before in every other tragic illness drama. Instead, Asia intimately lets us in on Asia and Vika’s lives as they deal with the slow onset of the nameless disease. There’s nothing fussy about Pribar’s filmmaking style — it’s straightforward, almost refusing to be sentimental, but it’s far from unsentimental. Pribar’s uncomplicated direction allows Asia to tackle complicated themes: Asia’s turmoil over caring for her daughter while bemoaning her own complicated love life, Vika’s resentment toward her charming, beautiful mother who can make men fawn over her with a simple look, the excruciating inevitability of the disease’s progress.
Both are stubborn and opinionated to a fault, and rich with their own flaws and idiosyncrasies. Asia tries to balance her work-hard, play-hard lifestyle with her overprotective maternal instincts for Vika, while the shy Vika, always insecure about her plain looks in comparison to her radiant mother, crushes on the local skater boys who flash her cheesy grins. Vika yearns to experience the romantic and sexual experiences that come so easy to Asia, but her window of opportunity slowly narrows as the disease progresses. Asia eventually realizes this and makes it her mission to get her daughter laid — a rather funny and lighthearted distraction from their heartbreaking reality.
But Asia’s new resolve is never too laugh-out-loud comedic, and Vika’s disease is never too depressing — Asia walks the middle ground, in that strange, grounded reality of frankly dealing with grief with a sad sense of humor. The Farewell treaded that territory before, but it’s one that mainstream movies usually stay away from — the emotions are too complicated and uncomfortable to deal with, and it’s easier to go with the big sentimental outbursts. As a nurse, it’s a territory that Asia is all too familiar with — one bittersweet scene of her and a doctor/sometimes lover fondly reminiscing over a patient who loses his nagging wife feels like foreshadowing for where the film will go. Even when things fall apart for the two of them — one day, Vika and Asia come home from the hospital to a broken fridge and rotting food, and instead of breaking down crying, Asia uses the moment to goof off with her daughter.
Yiv and Haas are almost too perfectly cast as mother and daughter — their physical resemblance is uncanny. Haas, who is set to become a star in the west after a breakout performance in Netflix’s Unorthodox, impresses once again, giving a melancholic, strained emotional performance and is tremendous at showing the slow disintegration of her body under the disease, all curled hands and shaking limbs. Yiv gives a subtler but no less astounding performance, communicating a quiet resilience and heartache that only sometimes flickers on her face when she helps her daughter out of her wheelchair.
“The only great thing I got from a man is you,” Asia tenderly tells Vika, as she comforts her daughter through her first heartbreak.
Asia is an intimate and quietly devastating film that refuses to be overcome by the disease that Vika suffers from. In the end, it is a profoundly simple drama about the layered, complex, unbreakable relationship between mother and daughter.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10