There’s nothing quite like watching a movie about dying teenagers, is there? From The Fault In Our Stars to Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, movies about terminal illnesses in adolescents might not be as common as you may think, but they almost seem like a genre unto themselves. While they certainly aren’t for everyone, they’re usually done in some kind of a romantic, almost poetic light. The inevitable deaths of those main characters usually have meaning or purpose of some kind. Yes they may be dying, but they’re going to try to make the most of their young lives.
And then you have movies like Asia which take that romanticism and blindsides you with how unglamorous and unpleasant the act of dying actually is. I don’t feel the need to explain that dying sucks, but I think we can all agree that spending an entire movie watching someone die isn’t and shouldn’t be the most jolly experience in the world. Factor on an already strained relationship between a young single mother and her ever weakening daughter, and you may have a recipe for a fairly dramatic and satisfying movie.
I say may because Asia doesn’t really deliver on those fronts. In fact it’s kind of a bore to watch.
Director: Ruthy Pribar
Release Date: April 15, 2020 (Tribeca Film Festival)
Asia (Alena Yiv) and her daughter Vika (Shira Haas) are Russian immigrants living in Israel that are having an all around tough time. Asia works frequent shifts at the local hospital by day and parties hard by night, oftentimes ignorant of her daughter, while Vika hangs with people that don’t have her best interests in mind. The two have difficulty connecting with each other, but their tense relationship is made even more problematic due to Vika’s degenerative disease. It’s not clear exactly what kind of disease Vika has, as it’s never clearly stated in the movie, but she’s slowly losing control of her muscles, which eventually renders her bound to a wheelchair and grasping with the fact that she’s going to die a virgin sooner rather than later.
Even in describing the plot, I feel like I’m leaving a ton of relevant plot details out because while Asia does have a somewhat simple premise (girl is dying and mom doesn’t know how to process it), the movie jumps around frantically between several different trains of thought with barely any connection between them. We see Vika drinking with friends only to never see them again after the first ten minutes, Asia having relations with another doctor who barely affects the plot, and frequent old woman bathing scenes that don’t play too much into the grand story either. This isn’t like 12 Hour Shift where most of the characters and relationships, big or small, served some purpose to advance the plot, but rather using these characters, in theory, to inform the development of our central characters.
And yet Asia doesn’t focus on actually developing its main characters. In truth, it’s hard to tell what the point of Asia even was. In the beginning, it’s assumed that the plot would focus on Vika fulfilling her wish of having sex before she dies. That’s a fine goal but the movie barely acknowledges it for most of its runtime and it eventually amounts to nothing. There is no catharsis both literally and figuratively to the events of Asia. It feels less like a personal journey that Asia and Vika go on together but rather a journal of what the two women did leading up to the inevitable conclusion.
While the story centers on Vika’s downward physical spiral, her mother hardly gets any time spent on her or her perspective on what’s happening. There’s no insight into her personality outside of one brief scene where she’s open with her daughter about sex, but one two minute scene in an 85 minute movie isn’t enough. While I feel that the word “understated” would probably described Yiv’s performance here, there simply wasn’t enough vulnerability on display here. Back when I was in acting school, the one thing that all of my acting professors harped on my classmates and I was the need to personalize and internalize the events of a scene and use the text to bring out a strong inner life. In other words, by feeding off the delivery of your partner, you can make your own performance better. In nearly all instances, Yiv never opens herself up to Haas, which negatively affects both actresses.
Here’s the thing about acting: it’s not a one man show. Unless you are literally doing a one man show, even if you’re doing a monologue or soliloquy, you’re reliant on the performances and relationship of other actors to better advance your own technique. The script is rife with potential avenues for Asia to really express herself, same with Vika, but Yiv didn’t take those opportunities to flesh out her character. While I would chalk this more up to an inexperienced director, this is Pribar’s first feature film, it nevertheless means that when these emotional scenes crop up, none of them ever land. The only one that hits is the very last scene, but that only hits as hard as it does because, you know, it’s a movie about a dying teenager.
But at the end of the day, I just felt bored watching Asia. Even in the most heartbreaking dramas, I always felt something, some kind of passion from the cast and crew. With Asia I didn’t feel anything. I wanted to feel something since I felt that Haas delivered a solid turn as a girl who is slowly becoming a prisoner of her own body, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t do it. The extraneous situations didn’t matter and the central relationship was never explored to the extent it was worth getting invested in. If I couldn’t care about a teenage girl dying, why would I bother caring about the movie as a whole?