Thursday 19 November 2020

Mother and child reunion: "Asia"

Israeli writer-director Ruthy Pribar's Asia gets right what a surprising number of films get wrong, casting as mother and daughter a pair of actresses who actively look like blood relations. See them in profile, and they could easily be mistaken - as an onscreen bartender does at one point - for sisters. This casting coup is central to the effects of a film that spends at least half of its running time inviting us to compare and contrast, to run two ever so slightly estranged lives in parallel, and weigh up which is the wobblier. The mother, Asia (Leningrad-born Alena Yiv, speaking Hebrew with a distinctively Slavic twang), is a nurse clinging to the notion that 40 is the new 20, insistent that her nights off be her own: cue drinking, dancing and bunk-ups in a car passenger seat with a bearded fuckbuddy. Her absence from the domestic scene allows a little more wiggle room for teenage daughter Vika (Shira Haas, from Netflix's Unorthodox), who's just started to discover the delights of drink and weed in the company of the local skater boys; a risky business, doubly so when you're battling a form of motor neurone disease, as Vika is. Both of our heroines are too busy asserting their independence - soliciting affection and affirmation, before some notional clock runs out - for there to be much in the way of mother-daughter interdependence. For all that these two might resemble one another, they meet in the kitchen in the early hours almost as strangers or flatmates. Yet Pribar brings us to the table at the beginnings of a forced detente, brought about by a dramatic downturn in the junior party's health.

That development carries Asia within touching distance of the afternoon TV movie and many long yards of awards bait (unsurprisingly, it's the Israeli entrant for this year's foreign-language Oscar race), but Pribar's handling proves unusually thoughtful, not least in the way she sets out different kinds of caring for us to evaluate. If the relationship at the film's centre has gone neglected by these characters, the filmmaker surrounds it with evidence of empathy besides. The colleague Asia sporadically romps with (Gera Sandler) expresses evident concern for Vika, but remains wise enough not to press for a more permanent position in her mother's overburdened life. Also present, in every sense: Gabi (Tamir Mula), the Arab porter Asia recruits first as home help, then to go beyond the call of domestic duty. (There may be something quietly political in Pribar's conception of an Arab-Israeli alliance for the betterment of the next generation.) Pribar has taken that old wisdom about it taking a village to raise a child, and relocated it to the modern, multi-ethnic, time-pressed city. One of her most forgiving gestures is her portrait of Asia herself. It's not that this mother doesn't care for her child; it seems more likely that she's just all cared out whenever she clocks off - and is then faced with a patient in her own front room. Though she approaches some big issues here (family, loss, that ever more permeable boundary between work and life), Pribar goes gently, without histrionics; even the conversations characters have in the outside world rarely rise above the respectful volume one would use in a hospital corridor. I suspect Asia might for that reason have been drowned out in cinemas, but it can only benefit from lockdown viewing; it's the kind of intimate drama where we instinctively lean in to catch the nuances, and find ourselves drawn into the characters' lives. That's as much as anything an actors' achievement, and Haas in particular is very affecting as a soul bright enough to know her body is shutting down on her. By the moving home stretch, two sometime lookalikes appear physically very different, but spiritually closer than ever. This is a film with a nice, well-tempered shape to it.

Asia opens tomorrow at the Everyman Cardiff and Showcase Cardiff, and will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

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