Alena Yiv and Shira Haas's performances elevate a stylistically confident but otherwise unremarkable terminal illness drama
Ruthy Pribar’s debut film, Asia, is a strong example of just how far powerful performances and imaginative cinematography can carry a rather rote and uninvolving story. There’s very little here that you haven’t seen before, but the panache with which much of it is executed makes for a first feature that displays a lot of promise, despite its flaws.
Asia (Alena Yiv) is a 35-year-old Russian expat in Jerusalem, working long hours as a nurse while trying to maintain a social life and care for her teenage daughter Vika (Shira Haas, star of Netflix’s Unorthodox). Asia and Vika have the kind of testy dynamic you might expect from a film about a young, hard-partying mum, but this is complicated by Vika’s degenerative terminal illness. With the end looming, Vika starts distancing herself from Asia, while trying to lose her virginity before she dies.
All the familial strife and illness drama plays out pretty much exactly as you’d expect, right up to the finale, and Asia’s lack of capacity to surprise weakens its big emotional beats. Fortunately, Yiv and Haas do sterling work to keep you involved, taking generic roles and bringing them to vibrant life. Yiv shows us Asia’s conflicted exhaustion, and the joy she ekes out in her day to day life, like an affair with a doctor at her hospital and the care she takes of an old woman in her apartment building, is infectious.
Haas, meanwhile, does a great job of communicating the emotional impact of her declining physical conditions. There is fear and anger, yes, but also something more complex and reckless, a wounded pride at being struck low during what should be the most exciting time of her life.
Excellent cinematography brings us close to Asia and Vika, intimate without being obtrusive or voyeuristic -the camera gives both women their dignity even in their most vulnerable moments. DOP Daniella Nowitz finds consistently interesting ways to frame Asia’s limited locations – it is mostly restricted to Asia’s apartment and a series of hospital wards – and this confident sense of style is crucial to keeping the film as compelling as it is.
There’s not much depth here, though, and most of Asia’s themes are simply sketched, from its safe and familiar look at terminal illness to its occasional grasps at tackling the migrant experience in Israel. At 85 minutes, it is a brisk watch, but given how generic the story often is, some additional room dedicated to these characters and their world would have been appreciated.
A key player in the film’s final act, for example, often feels like something of an afterthought. Had they been more engaging, the climax could have possessed some fascinating moral conundrums – instead it just washes over you, entirely reliant again on its impressive lead actors to sell the moment. There are some great individual elements in Asia, and Pribar’s visual confidence bodes well for any future films, but it ultimately ends up feeling a little less than the sum of its parts.
Asia is now streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.Where to watch