June 24, 2022


Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘A First Farewell’ review: Uighur drama is gorgeous and murky

The Chinese film “A First Farewell” aims for the heart with arresting images and struggling Uyghur kids — and some murky messages and questionable filmmaking techniques blurring documentary and narrative.

Two elementary-school friends, Isa (Isa Yasan) and Kalbinur (Kalbinur Rahmati), grow up in a tiny village bordered by both woods and desert. It’s rural and poor but not exactly destitute; while we don’t see it, there are references to the kids watching too much TV and — for the camera, anyway — their clothes are always clean. Isa and Kalbinur must each cope with extreme change; per the title, the film’s theme is inevitable goodbyes.

Your heart goes right out to the irresistible kids. Isa has responsibilities no child his age should have to bear, particularly caring for his beloved mother, who is deaf, nonverbal and tends to wander off. He’s apparently an OK student and a budding athlete, but what really jumps out is his good-heartedness. The way he cares for a lamb or embraces his stricken mother, uncomplainingly does his work or quietly pleads for his father to not put the mother in a nursing home add up to a kid you can’t help but root for.

Kalbinur has a ton of personality. We meet her playfully threatening to cast a spell on Isa if he doesn’t give back the darling lamb of which they’ve agreed to share custody. She is struggling in school, particularly in learning Mandarin, to the chagrin of her unsatisfied mother and strict teachers. She, Isa and her younger brother have a strong bond that sustains them in the face of pressure and instability.

The intimacy of the film’s knowledge of the region is possible in part due to first-time director Wang Lina’s having grown up there. Wang and cinematographer Li Yong capture arresting images: Isa’s silhouette in the dark of night as he cries out for his missing mother; the trio of young friends chatting as they traverse a sand dune in search of the mother.

The film reportedly grew out of a planned documentary intending to follow Uyghur children for 10 years. According to the press notes, Wang became interested in the personal stories of subjects Yasan and Rahmati; the untrained filmmaker decided to script scenes and shape a fictional narrative based on real events in their lives, casting the actual families.

The film’s view of Uyghur-Chinese government relations is hard to decode. That vagueness is possibly necessary to get it past stringent censors in a country where, as Times reporting has put it, “a vast system of surveillance, detention, cultural erasure and forced labor has devastated the Uyghur people in their homeland.” In fact, the U.S. has declared China’s policies toward the ethnic minority — including re-education camps and forcing Mandarin upon them — a “genocide”; that the film makes no mention of the ongoing humanitarian crisis seems significant.

“First Farewell” hammers home the importance of learning Mandarin, ostensibly for economic advancement, and finds Uyghur elders trusting official policy (“The government is also our father,” says one). One of the boys aspires to become a cadre — a public official and likely a Communist Party member. While the Mandarin-speaking teachers’ edicts are unquestioned by the adults, the teachers mercilessly humiliate a child before a classroom packed with kids and parents because of low scores in Mandarin studies.

That the filmmaking itself blurs the line between documentary and narrative can be discomfiting. In one case, Wang conspired with Kalbinur’s mother and her teacher to make the actual girl (not just the character) think she was late for school and being punished; what’s captured on screen is Kalbinur’s real tears of dismay and humiliation. Wang says in the production notes they never explained to her it was a setup, “even now.” The director also says she intends to continue following the kids for the documentary project.

“A First Farewell” is a gorgeously shot window into a world most of us hadn’t looked through before, but it’s worth examining the meanings of its images.

‘A First Farewell’

In Uyghur and Mandarin with English subtitles


Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 26, Laemmle Virtual Cinema