'Asia': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

Courtesy of Film
From left: Shira Haas and Alena Yiv in 'Asia'
A wrenching portrait of maternal love.

Dire circumstances coax a single mother and her ailing teenage daughter to forge the tight connection previously missing from their lives in Ruthy Pribar's intimate drama.

[Note: In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

An alumna of the Cannes Cinéfondation Residence program who has earned attention with her short films, Israeli writer-director Ruthy Pribar makes an assured feature debut, balancing sobriety with emotional intensity in Asia. Named for the Russian immigrant mother played by Alena Yiv with hard edges that don't conceal the yearning underneath, the movie is actually a twin character study paralleling Asia's loneliness, exhaustion and melancholy with the cruelly interrupted adolescence of her daughter Vika. The latter is etched in a tough characterization notable for its absolute refusal of self-pity, which should build on the head-turning reputation of expressive young actress Shira Haas, star of the talked-about Netflix miniseries Unorthodox.

Asia inevitably will draw comparison to Michael Haneke's Amour in its unflinching depiction of love and sacrifice. But even when you think you know where this perceptively observed small-scale drama is headed, it continues to yield surprising nuances that keep you gripped until the sorrowful conclusion. The maturity of the directorial voice is evident in its clear-eyed, rigorously unsentimental assessment of a shattering situation.

Asia works long hours as a nurse at a Jerusalem hospital. Still young and attractive despite her careworn manner, she spends her downtime getting quietly smashed at singles bars or having occasional sex with a married doctor colleague (Gera Sandler) in his car, like a furtive teenager. There seems little evidence of warmth at home in her brusque rapport with 17-year-old Vika, who hangs out at a local skate park with her friend Natali (Eden Halili), smoking pot, drinking and hesitantly flirting with one of the guys, Roy (Or Barak).

The writer-director strips away exposition to a minimum. She holds back the first indication of Vika's health issues until only after Natali has taken her to the hospital when alcohol causes a bad reaction with her medication, something her mother angrily warns her she should know to avoid. But Vika's natural curiosity about sex and her desire to fit in with her peers cause her to shrug off common-sense caution. While Asia is at work, she ends up at home with Roy, chugging cognac and making out, until her mood abruptly changes with what could be simple nerves or a physical warning that her body is shutting down. Roy's insensitive reaction ("I'm not into virgins anyway") jibes with Asia's jaded experience of men. "The only thing I ever got from a man is you," she tells her daughter.

A doctor's visit reveals that Vika suffers from a degenerative disorder that already is compromising her motor skills and will eventually affect her breathing, though the timeline of that prognosis remains vague.

Where at first there seems almost no communication between Asia and Vika, tiny windows open up in their interactions — often more like the exchanges of sisters than mother and daughter — initially during a seaside weekend, then back at home. Asia seems to be getting a kind of preview of her daughter's future when she helps the home-care worker of an elderly neighbor with dementia (Mirna Fridman and Nadia Tichonova, respectively). Her anxiety over Vika's condition is tempered by her impatience with the teenager's sullen disposition.

The economical style of Pribar's storytelling extends to the progression of Vika's illness, which soon has her released from hospital with very limited mobility, her decay echoed in the stench of rotting food coming from their clapped out refrigerator. Unable to maintain her hospital workload while caring for her daughter, who refuses to allow her friends to see her, Asia enlists help from young male trainee nurse Gabi (Tamir Mula, excellent). His kindness toward Vika prompts Asia to make an unusual request of him: "There are things I can't give her that you can."

In less capable hands, this could have been the stuff of tearjerker melodrama. But the integrity of the actors and the intimacy of Daniella Nowitz's camerawork make the material quietly moving, bringing dignity and compassionate humanism to an inescapably bleak scenario. There's delicate understatement also in the consideration of each woman's sexuality; Asia seems fully in touch with her desires whereas for Vika, the pleasures of physical connection appear destined to remain unknown. This kind of communication — albeit mostly unspoken — between a mother and her daughter about the needs of their bodies is seldom depicted onscreen.

Without sanding down the brittle shells of either of the women, Pribar mines the tender moments between them. Asia puts aside her disapproval to share a cigarette with Vika on their balcony, telling her about the father back in Russia whom she was too young to remember when they left. A scene in which Asia puts earrings and makeup on her daughter in front of a bedroom mirror is lovely, transforming in a flash to sadness when Vika insists that she wash it all off before Gabi sees her. The director's observation of the bruising endured by Gabi in the situation adds another emotional layer.

It's in her smart handling of the ending, especially, that Pribar distinguishes herself, as do the two superbly matched leads, providing a somber snapshot of a bond in which the ultimate trust and love are shown where previously there seemed only distance and mutual incomprehension.

Production company: Gum Films
Cast: Alena Yiv, Shira Haas, Tamir Mula, Gera Sandler, Eden Halili, Or Barak, Nadia Tichonova, Mirna Fridman, Tatiana Machlinovski
Director-screenwriter: Ruthy Pribar
Producers: Yoav Roeh, Aurit Zamir
Director of photography: Daniella Nowitz
Production designer: Tamar Gadish
Costume designer: Inbak Shuki
Editor: Neta Dvorkis
Music: Karni Postel
Casting: Esther Kling
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (International Narrative Competition)
Sales: IntraMovies, Rome

86 minutes