‘A First Farewell’ (‘Di Yi Ci De Li Bie’): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Wang Lina’s ‘A First Farewell,’ a drama about three Uighur children struggling to conform to China’s Mandarin-led educational system, won the Grand Prix of the Generation Kplus section at the Berlinale.

Revolving around the difficulties faced by Uyghur children and their parents in adapting to a Mandarin-language educational system, A First Farewell offers a subtle yet incisive look at how China’s Muslim minority grapples with the pressure to ditch their own culture and conform to the social norms of the day. In her first fiction feature, young Chinese filmmaker Wang Lina goes beyond the headlines to skillfully and subtly reveal the human costs of state-enforced cultural homogenization policies. It’s an issue on which Beijing brooks no dissent.

Despite its backing from mainstream Chinese conglomerates (like the filmmaking arm of social media giant Tencent) and state-owned studios (such as the Sichuan-based Emei Film Group), First Farewell thrives on humanity rather than dogma, and offers poetry rather than propaganda. Bolstered by lush imagery and, perhaps more importantly, immensely naturalistic performances from its non-professional child actors, the film conjures up a quietly heartbreaking drama that works on multiple levels. These nuances probably allowed Wang to elude the stringent demands of China’s censors.

The Bottom Line

Much, much more than just child’s play.

Wang’s debut is making waves on the festival circuit, having just added the grand prize in the Berlinale’s Generation Kplus section to the Asian Future award it won at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The film also will be in competition for the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Firebird Awards in late March. Both topical and technically excellent, First Farewell should attract plenty of attention from programmers.

The story revolves mostly around three elementary schoolchildren from a rural farming community. Isa (Isa Yasan) spends most of his time attending to his family’s herd of goats and taking care of his ailing mother, a burden made heavier by the pending departure of his elder brother Musa (Musa Yasan), who is going to the city for his studies. Kalbinur (Kalbinur Rahmati) is more fortunate; she and her kid brother (Alinaz Rahmati) lead a happier, more carefree existence with their tired but loving cotton-picking parents.

What brings them together is a shared struggle in coping with their schoolwork in Mandarin, a language completely foreign to them but now deemed essential if they are to emerge from poverty. This belief is very much internalized, even among the adults. Kalbinur’s mother, for example, chastises her husband for taking their grades too lightly; she feels not being able to speak Mandarin will make them “dumb” and devoid of a proper future. “And I hate being poor,” she adds.

While probably too young to fathom all this, the kids certainly know the challenges they face in learning the language. They are shown reciting lines by rote without understanding their meaning. This is hardly a surprise when they’re required to learn classical Chinese poetry, which is light years away from their traditional Uyghur songs and stories at home. Worsening their plight is their teachers’ lack of empathy. In one staggering scene, little Kalbinur and her mother are asked to stand up in a parents’ meeting and confess their own shortcomings, which smacks of self-criticism sessions during the dark days of China’s Cultural Revolution.

With the help of Li Yong’s non-intrusive camerawork and Mathieu Laclau’s precise editing, Wang weaves these snapshots into a much bigger and more powerful picture of difficult rites of passage in difficult times. What makes these stories devastating is how they unfold amid sweeping, utterly beautiful landscapes where local communities have lived and thrived for generations. As the characters recoil in fear, anxiety or sadness on the steppes or atop a barren tree, the viewer feels pangs for the end of their innocence, as well as their culture. By leaving the ending open for at least one of the kids, however, Wang challenges the viewer — and maybe those in power — to reflect on what would be best for a child growing up in such circumstances.

Production companies: Shanghai Eternity Media & Culture, Tencent Pictures Cultural Media, Khorgos Mgtv.com Interactive Media, Beijing Medoc Film, Shanghai Bridgestream, Emei Film Group
Cast: Isa Yasan, Kalbinur Rahmati, Alinaz Rahmati, Musa Yasan
Director-screenwriter-production designer: Wang Lina
Producers: Qin Xiaoyu, Cai Qingzeng
Director of photography: Li Yong
Music: Wenzi
Editing: Matthieu Laclau
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Generation Kplus)
Sales: Flash Forward Entertainment

In Uighur, Mandarin
86 minutes