Friend, I have watched you down the mountain/ Till now in the dark I close my thatch-door…/ Grasses return again green in the spring,/ But, O Wang Sun, will you return? The seasonality of a life far removed from the mechanization of “elevated highways and buildings even made from glass” adheres to a sense of cyclical permanence governed by a higher, earthly power. Though written over a millennium ago, Wang Wei’s poignant question finds a home even today: a contemplation of human impermanence to which there is no immediate answer – a parting, a farewell. It is an unwelcome contemplation with life-changing implications in Lina Wang’s debut feature ‘A First Farewell’ and though the poet himself plays a less wholesome role, his likening as a painter-poet manifests superbly in this visual love-letter to Xinjiang.
A lifetime away from the frantic buzz of the Han-centric East, ‘A First Farewell’ is a moving tapestry of Uygher village life in China’s Northwest. Following the lives of Isa, his friend Kalbinur, and their respective families, the film navigates the challenges they all face of balancing education, work, and caring for their elderly and sick. At its core is the notion of change, of departure, and the toll this takes on young Isa’s life – events which are wildly beyond his control yet leave him feeling increasingly isolated. One by one, his family and friends leave him – his brother, his sickly mother, his friends, his little lamb – and all the while the seasons and the world around his microcosm changes.
Whilst the loss of innocence would firmly render this a coming-of-age story, Wang’s film is distinctly not this. Her firm yet delicate handling of the subject matter is sensitive to the community as a whole. Taking time to arrive at the crucial decisions the parents come to make organically, exposes us to their vulnerabilities, particularly those of the patriarchs who, though hardworking, are shockingly more nonchalant to their situations. Pitting child and non-actors into said situations pays off as, though there is a slight disconnect, the overall experience feels more authentic and thus overwhelmingly pivotal. Moments of jubilation are countered with those of concern – the building of a house for Isa and Kalbinur’s lamb, for example, is met with a dire search for Isa’s unwell mother who was left under his charge – and this feeds into general tone with meticulous affection, leaving us with an astoundingly personal affair.
Unsurprisingly then, it is the bonds between characters which not only leave the strongest impression but play the most essential roles here. Throughout its running time, ‘A First Farewell’ develops its relationships with patience and care, whether that’s the touching love-hate marriage of Kalbinur’s parents (who share a most touching scene), the growing respect between Isa and his brother Musa or, more obviously, the blossoming friendship bringing Isa and Kalbinur together. There is nothing but delight in watching the young leads live and breathe their roles in a way only children can, their performance nothing short of endearing, lighting up their scenes with such youthful fervour even as those bonds begin to be torn apart.
Like most films from the region, ‘A First Farewell’ is a symbiotic meditation lived by those the camera happens to focus on. Unlike most, this feels wholly political: with the expansion of a reawakened Beijing trickling into the everyday aspects of Uyghur life, modernisation of the region is imminent. Here, it is felt generationally as a wonder to some and a fear for others; Mandarin is a requirement in schools and Kalbinur’s mother, who herself cannot speak the language, is publicly scorned for her daughter’s low grade score – she is not alone on this. Our window into the children’s education follows this further as the Zen-Buddhist poetry of Wang Wei is taught in lieu of anything remotely Islamic or Uyghur. Though reaching such a conclusion is undeniably controversial, the way Wang frames her concept of change and isolation speaks volumes, the marks worn clear-as-day on the young Isa’s face. Does the loss of this familiarity signal the end to the seasonal life he was grown into?
As beautiful a painting as the teachers describe the poetry of Wang Wei, Li Wong’s cinematography paints the screen with lush and eloquent brushstrokes to bring rural Xinjiang to life with such vibrancy. Each frame awash with the seasons (used to their maximum potential) to ground the film’s tone from the beginning. Running at a succinct 86-minutes, ‘A First Farewell’ is superbly paced, never rushing to any one destination yet retaining the feeling of being masterfully reigned in.
As captivating a debut anyone could dream of making, its craftsmanship hasn’t gone unnoticed having taken home the Best Asian Future Film Award at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. There is much to praise here as Wang’s seemingly slice-of-life approach to storytelling carries more depth than its simple yet rich exterior leads one to believe. What Wang has done captures the full impact of impermanence within these uncertain times; we are left wanting to reassure Isa everything has happened for the greater good, answering the Tang Dynasty poet’s question with the same level of confidence poured into the director’s efforts. We cannot, but in doing so affirms Wang’s resounding ability to connect us to her characters.