An outstanding debut feature by Chinese writer-director Wang Lina, “A First Farewell” centers on three Uighur children and their farming families whose lives are upended by regulations demanding increased levels of Mandarin language-based teaching in schools. Beautifully photographed and performed by amazingly talented non-professional child actors, Wang’s film is an emotionally rewarding glimpse into challenges faced by this Muslim minority. Having already won the Crystal Bear of the Generation Kplus section at Berlin and the Asian Future best film award at Tokyo, “Farewell” is certain to attract further commercial interest and film festival invitations following exposure at Hong Kong FilMart.
Avoiding commentary on headline-grabbing issues relating to the Uighur that surely would have seen her work fall foul of Chinese censors, Wang opts for storytelling reminiscent of many fine Iranian films such as Majid Majidi’s “The Color of Paradise” (1999). Told mostly through the eyes of primary school-aged characters, “Farewell” operates firstly as a film that can be deemed as suitable for children, while also offering plenty for adult audiences to read between the lines.
The pattern of life in a village on the edge of a desert in Xinjiang Autonomous Province is established in graceful, unhurried sequences. Isa (Isa Yasan) is the youngest son of a goat-herding family. In a heart-melting early moment, the bright-eyed boy feeds one of his beloved animals with a baby’s bottle. He’s also required to look after his mother (Ugulem Sugur), who’s now deaf after contracting meningitis and frequently wanders away from home. With older brother Moosa (Moosa Yasan) about to leave to further his education, Isa’s the only one left to help his father (Yasan Kasimu) with the hefty work burden.
The film’s glowing heart is Isa’s friendship with neighbor Kalbinur (Kalbinur Rahmati) and her little brother Alinaz (Alinaz Rahmati), the children of an unnamed, cotton-farming couple (Tajigul Heilmeier and Rahmati Kranmu). In joyful scenes, the inseparable trio play in a poplar tree forest and construct a special house for a sick young animal. But before viewers can get too comfortable with such innocent charms, Wang brings a gritty edge to things with Isa’s mother disappearing and Kalbinur describing how her parents’ arguing makes her think they’ll soon get divorced.
Whatever hardships the children face at home pales in comparison with their difficulties completing schoolwork in the foreign language of Mandarin. As stern teachers, including Mr. Ni (Ni Dewang), explain, learning Mandarin is the only way to get ahead in adult life. Wang’s incisive script shows how this policy affects children, adults, and community elders, who fear an exodus of young people to the cities will leave no one to care for them.
For Kalbinur’s mother, it’s personal and financial. After berating her husband for not taking the kids’ language studies seriously, which in turn will condemn the family to ongoing poverty, she’s publicly humiliated at a parent-teacher meeting for her daughter’s poor grades. This extraordinary scene is as close as Wang’s screenplay gets to overt political commentary. That said, authorities might view it approvingly as a strong message that needs to be delivered for the common good.
Stunning images of seasonal change enhance the film’s themes of loss and upheaval. Shot over the course of a year by D.P. Li Yong and dedicated by Wang to her hometown of Shaya in Xinjiang, “Farewell” treats viewers to memorable views of lush greenery, winter snowfalls, and lonely trees somehow surviving in otherwise barren stretches of desert. Wang’s top-notch team includes composer Xi Wen (“Black Coal Thin Ice”), whose subtle score ranges from haunting electronic ambience to Eastern-influenced riffs on spaghetti Western-style rhythms. Editor Matthieu Laclau (“Ash Is Purest White”) expertly assembles a great deal of plot and character information into 86 minutes than never feels rushed.