Israel's 2021 Oscar submission - whilst ultimately not nominated - is 'Asia', a devastating drama that looks at a mother and daughter relationship amid the struggles of a degenerative disease.
At only 35, Asia (Alena Yiv) is a relatively young, free-spirited mother who moved to Israel from Russia with her daughter, Vika (Shira Haas, TV's 'Unorthodox', 'The Zookeeper's Wife'). Asia is a nurse, and while her caregiving abilities are an obvious major focus of the film, it becomes clear from very early on that while she may have the capacity to care, it's scarcely utilised when it comes to her only child. Asia had Vika when she was only young, going as far to admit to Vika that "the only good thing she ever got from a man was her". It's a sentiment that although sweet, has an underlying and inescapable sadness that shadows what should otherwise be a close bond.
Vika is sick, and gets progressively less abled as the film moves forward, which results in resentment and subsequent friction with her mother. There is a jealously Vika holds for Asia because she is everything that Vika can never be, and that daunting realisation continues to brew inside of her, most notably when it comes to sex, and not wanting to die a virgin.
However, this is where the focus of immigration comes into play, because not being native to the land forces Asia and Vika to be there for each other. They have nobody else, no friends or family to call upon, and that initial void of close support may seem damaging at first, but ultimately proves to be the key in forcing Asia to get closer to Vika, and to become a better mother. They do introduce Gabi (Tami Mula), a young nurse who knows Asia from work and comes to help Vika at home. It proves to be an interesting introduction to the family dynamic, albeit brief due to unfortunate circumstances put into play.
Written and directed by Ruthy Pribar, 'Asia' has multiple impressive awards under its belt, most notably 8 Israeli Academy Awards, and Best Actress (Shira Haas) and Cinematography at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it made its debut. There are some stunning shots throughout 'Asia', with DP and close friend to Pribar, Daniella Nowitz, composing a sense of isolation and grittiness, yet all with a sensitive lens that finds the optimism and beauty in it all; contrary to the grounded Jerusalem landscapes rarely seen on screen, Pribar and Nowitz manage to find the optimism in an otherwise upsetting environment, which plays well on the theme of taking nothing for granted, and realising what it is you have in front of you.
There is a jealously Vika holds for Asia because she is everything that Vika can never be, and that daunting realisation continues to brew inside of her
Haas is one of Israel's most recognised actresses (arguably only second to Gal Gadot), and she is phenomenal as the weary and impassioned Vika. She is considerate and respectful when displaying her condition, as she carefully and accurately diminishes her motor movement throughout the film.
However, this film really belongs to Yiv, who gives a career-defining performance as the emotional heartbeat of the film. As the titular Asia the focus is unsurprisingly on her, and whilst sometimes to the point of discomfort, it's a really understated way of showcasing the compassion and melancholy that Pribar is looking for. Even when on the phone or talking to someone else in the room, the camera rarely leaves her sight, allowing a sense of vulnerability - but more importantly, it becomes a window for audiences to witness her strive for motherhood. She wants to do better, she needs to do better, and at first it appears that she just doesn't have it in her to provide what she needs to for Vika. Seeing her change and become more confident in her growing relationship with Vika is heartfelt, inspiring, and impressive.
This film is not about sickness - in fact, Vika's actual condition is not even given a name - rather, this film is about a relationship. In 'Asia', audiences witness the slow ascent of a mother finding her feet to become more dependable and more caring, which comes together in a devastating finale that will leave few dry eyes in the crowd. It's slow to start and takes a bit too long to get into, but elevated by fantastic cinematography and outstanding performances, 'Asia' is well worth your time.