A First Farewell (China, 2018) [NYAFF 2019]

Dedicating her debut feature film “to my hometown Shaya, Xinjiang,” Wang Lina marks what is hopefully an ever-increasing number of independent filmmakers and productions local to the region of Xinjiang and its diverse ethnic groups, including the Uyghur, shot by those who were born and grew up there like Wang herself and in the local languages — in the vein of the so-called “Tibetan New Wave” classified by critics and spearheaded by Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal. Focusing on two Muslim Uyghur families, more specifically through the eyes of their children, Wang’s film is a remarkable debut on the bittersweet experiential trajectory of children whose gradually expanding perspectives and possibilities are inevitably accompanied by changes that signal the “first farewells” of childhood — and trying to make sense of why those changes are happening.

One of the children is Isa (Isa Yasan), a young boy who takes care of his ill mother (Ugulem Sugur) and daily chores around the house to help out his aging father (Kasimu Yasan). While taking care of an ill mother may be a chore for some children, it is not the case for Isa, who has a strong attachment to his mother. His attachment to her is rendered even more acute in the face of a father busy with maintaining and monitoring their animals and harvests and the imminent departure of an older brother Moosa (Moosa Yasan) for university; Isa is essentially taking over Moosa’s duties when he was Isa’s age. At the same time, the tug of childhood play and friendship is also very strong, which motivates the film’s initial set of events that gradually introduce the people and parts of Isa’s world.

Particularly integral to Isa’s world is his friendship with Kalbinur (Kalbinur Rahmati) and her rambunctious younger brother Alinaz (Alinaz Rahmati). Throughout its running time, the film sticks closely to their perspective, which anchors the film’s shift from the rural area that encompasses Isa’s and Kalbinur’s families and relatives to a bigger town in which the school that the children attend is located. The delicate subtlety with which Wang develops the tension (aided by editor and frequent Jia Zhangke collaborator Matthieu Laclau) between the immediate context and pull of childhood fun and the larger context of the children’s education and their futures, including the pressure to study Mandarin, is one of the film’s strongest elements.

The first aural appearance of Mandarin in the film is quite sudden and unexpected: a lateral tracking shot shows a cotton field with the wind blowing while capturing offscreen voices speaking in Mandarin. As the camera continues to track to the right, it reveals Kalbinur and Alinaz seated in the cotton field practicing aloud Mandarin words and expressions. This shot of the two kids then cuts to a shot of them in the background continuing their practice while their parents pick cotton in the foreground. After Kalbinur’s mother (Tajigul Heilmeier) tells her to study hard and teach her brother well, the camera tracks right to focus on an extended conversation between the wife and husband (Rahmati Kranmu) about earning money for their children’s education, disagreeing on where to best and most effectively accomplish this task, and the financial and political value of knowing Mandarin. Interestingly, another sequence of Kalbinur’s family in the cotton field a little later in the film contrasts sharply with the above-mentioned one, as all four of them are picking cotton, singing, and laughing, with the parents sharing some of their past with the children.

The aural newness of Mandarin in the film in the aforementioned sequence becomes even more pronounced (and perhaps politicised) in relation to the one that directly precedes it: Isa’s and Kalbinur’s families/relatives celebrating Eid al-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice. Such hometown sequences like the Eid al-Adha celebration and a town/family meeting (concerning Isa’s mother and whether or not she should be placed in a nursing home) are in fact some of the most memorable moments, in part because they exude a documentary feel that adds to the film’s remarkable visuals and narrative. Still another jarring contrast of hometown and the larger world is a scene of Isa and his father shucking newly harvested corn, which cuts to a raucous school football match where Isa scores a goal for his team.

The lamb ultimately emerges as a nuanced metaphor for all of the “first farewells” that Isa and, to a lesser extent, Kalbinur experience in the course of the film: it motivates not only the first appearance of the children together in the film but also the first experience of separation, or farewell, for Isa, however temporary it may be, following the children’s agreement to split the responsibility of taking care of it every three days. As Isa tries to process why his family is not together like he wants it to be when he was younger and Kalbinur and Alinaz’ presence in his life is becoming uncertain, the film is thus very much a coming-of-age story. Though forlorn, the film’s concluding scene of landscape that overwhelms the tiny figure of Isa as he shepherds goats is also hopeful.

A First Farewell is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on July 11.