Israeli drama Asia is a tale of two women. On the one hand, it’s the story of the title character – a nurse who balances lengthy ward hours with passenger seat car sex with a married colleague. But it’s also about her daughter, Vika, who is living with a degenerative health condition that will eventually rob her of her motor skills, followed by the ability to breathe. Both of these women live with the knowledge that they don’t have long together, and that creates a unique and powerful dynamic between them.
Writer-director Ruthy Pribar’s movie teases at that dynamic in intriguing fashion, creating a compelling picture of a family living with the Sword of Damocles above them. Asia, played with sensitivity and naturalism by Alena Yiv, is torn between her desire to have a life of her own, while also being there for her increasingly independent teenage daughter. She knows that she has to let Vika (Shira Haas) fly free and enjoy her adolescence, but she’s also deeply vulnerable. An early scene in which some illicit drinking lands her in hospital – it clashes with her medication – makes the stakes very clear.
Pribar doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel here, telling a rather conventional, character-based story with the help of two impressive performances. This is a meandering and slow-paced film that doesn’t always capitalise on the storytelling building blocks it positions. Many of the beats of Asia will be familiar to viewers, but there’s a gentleness to the perspective which elevates the material to a higher level.
Haas steals the show with her performance as Vika. She’s having many of the same struggles as the average teenager, wanting to fit in with the drinking and drug-taking of her friends at the local skate park, as well as impressing boys. However, everything comes with an added layer of danger thanks to her illness and Haas plays that all over her face – as tentative and concerned as she is desperate to explore as her carefree peers do. The subtle transformation in her character is very well done too, adding an extra layer of potency.
Ostensibly, Vika’s desire to lose her virginity before her illness makes that impossible is a major thread of the movie’s plot. However, Pribar takes a more unconventional path and uses the notion of sex as a stand-in for all of the things the character is worried about missing. Asia tells her that men don’t have much to offer, but this feels hypocritical given the fact we see her eyeing up blokes in nightclubs and ignoring her phone during clandestine hook-ups. That sort of entirely understandable expression is what Vika will not be able to experience.
In fact, Asia mostly falls down in how little depth it adds to its title character. Yiv’s performance is nicely done, particularly in her scenes with Haas, but there’s a sense that she has an entire life and emotional turmoil to which the audience is not allowed access. Vika is an open book to the audience, leaving her mother feeling much less fleshed out.
With that said, the movie does find real emotional power in its final scenes, bringing mother and daughter together in ways that emphasise their closeness rather than the myriad ways in which they differ. Pribar’s film doesn’t always hit the groove it should in depicting a family trying to simply exist with crisis hanging over their head but, when it does, it has plenty to say.
Dir: Ruthy Pribar
Scr: Ruthy Pribar
Cast: Alena Yiv, Shira Haas, Tamir Mula, Gera Sandler, Eden Halili
Prd: Yoav Roeh, Aurit Zamir
DOP: Daniella Nowitz
Music: Karni Postel
Run time: 85 minutes
Asia is available in cinemas where possible and via Curzon Home Cinema from 20th November.