Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 27, 2021 6:31 am 
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WANG LINA: A FIRST FAREWELL 第一次的离别 (2018) - now online; new criticisms


Growing up and saying goodbye

The Uyghur people are a persecuted muslim minority in China. Filmmaker Wang Lina, whose debut feature this is, provides an intimate, beautiful picture of a vanishing life. She focuses on children living in a village on the edge of a desert in Xinjiang Autonomous Province. It's not idyllic, but there are moments of great sweetness and beauty. Begin with the sharp, alert features of the main character, Isa Yasan, a boy of ten or so.

Isa, an adorable, sweet, earnest youth. The youngest son of a goat-herding family, he helps his father (Yasan Kasimu) with farm work, herding goats, feeding animals, picking cotton. He also tends to his mother (Ugulem Sugur). An (meningitis) has made her not only deaf and mute, but mentally handicapped in some way that's not quite clear. Isa loves her very much. But one day on his watch she escapes and wanders off. He goes all over rather desperately looking for her. Isa's mom is a worry, and his father wants to put her in a nursing home. (So there is one, somewhere.) Isa goes to school, but maybe not enough. It seems he needs to learn Mandarin better. (We see him briefly in a class, where all chant under an instructor.) But it is the increasing imposition of Mandarin that is cutting off the Uyghurs from their own culture.

Isa spends his free time with his best girl friend, Kalbinur Rahmati, and they have a baby lamb they raise together. Moments they spend together are priceless. Filmmaker Wang Lina captures magic in this and some other scenes of A First Farewell, whose theme is that the world is somewhat leaving Isa behind. We see his older brother Moosa (Moosa Yasan) leave to further his education. This puts more burden of work on Isa. and what of his education, his future? But when we see him lovingly feed milk to a baby goat from a bottle, the moment is all.

Another priceless time is when Kalbinur is picking cotton with her parents (Tajigul Heilmeier and Rahmati Kranmu) and her father sings a poem he wrote for her mother. Kalbinur groves with it in a way that expresses the spirit of all music. And then her mother jokes and teases. Yet Kalbinur says they fight so much she's afraid they will divorce.

This film made me think of the incredible and somehow similar though more strictly documentary, Honeyland (ND/NF), a remarkable feat of humanistic ethnographic documentary filmmaking, which is coming to regular theaters soon (Friday, July 26, 2019). A First Farewell is as remarkable in its own way, more personal, and more staged, but also about a threatened, remote way of life seen from the inside. The filmmaker herself dedicates this poetic film to her own hometown of Shaya in Xinjiang.

There is a Variety review by Richard Kuipers, who relates this stylistically to "fine Iranian films such as Majid Majidi’s The Color of Paradise (1999) and noting that it's primarily geared for young viewers, while also "offering plenty" for adults who "to read between the lines." Indeed its simply, poignant, authentic scenes offer much to ponder, while bypassing Chinese censorship that would have been aroused by reference to the political issues of Uyghur life.

This film is a gem, and there is a top notch team behind it. The editing was by Matthieu Laclau, of Ash Is Purest White, the cool, understated score by Xi Wen, and the cinematography, shot over the period of a year, by dp Li Yong.

A First Farewell 第一次的离别 (Di yi ci de li bie), 86 mins. debuted at Tokyo Oct. 2018 (winning the Asian Future best film award) and also showed at the Berlinale Feb. 2019 and winning the Crystal Bear of the Generation Kplus section there. It was screened for this review as part of the NYAFF. In Uyghur and Mandarin.

Releasing online June 25, 2021 on Amazon Prime Video, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, Cathay Play, Smart Cinema USA, Montage Play (more at

A more critical than most Feb. 2021 LA Times review by Michael Ordona questions some of Wang Lina's methods finds it dangerously unclear about the current Uyghur situation. He feels Wang's "filmmaking techniques blurring documentary and narrative" and her dodging of censorship have led to problems. He says the director admits deceiving the child actor to make her cry when chastised in school and never revealed the deception. He points out the film never so much as mentions the humanitarian crisis the Uyghurs are in, a situation the US has officially designated as "genocide." The film's lack of direct criticism of Chinese policy toward the Uyghurs, he notes, must have been necessary to "get it past stringent censors, but this makes the film "murky." Can the use of fictionalized documentary methods have brought about dangerous distortions in this case?

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