Vassilis Kroustallis reviews the Canadian children's film 'Adventures in the Land of Asha'.
Canadian film director and editor Sophie Farkas Bolla crafts a heartwarming (even if settled in familiar territory) tale about difference and acceptance in her feature film debut 'Adventures in the Land of Asha' (Jules au pays d'Asha). Setting, along with her co-scriptwriter Sarah Lalonde, the story in the 1940 Northern (and wintry) Quebec would seem to be a choice that would justify the inherent racism its main character, Jules (Alex Dupras) has to face. (Unfortunately, the film still looks contemporary).
Jules suffers from a non-contagious skin disease. We see him settling along with his mother, Catherine (Marilyse Bourke) to his uncle's place, for some rest -and, hopefully, cure. Jules is fascinated by the books that describe the indigenous population (even without noticing their racist undertones). These sentiments are not shared by his uncle (and mayor), who will be more than indifferent to Jules' predicament (he asks him to occupy an isolated room). His uncle is also hostile to the land and reserve where Quebec's indigenous people have settled and devises an exploitative policy of overtaking the land by chopping down the forest.
The two script lines will converge in the face of Asha (Gaby Jourdain), Jules' playful and more daring friend, who will guide Jules into a land and people more open to accepting his condition -making him feel in unison with the land itself.
'Adventures in the Land of Asha' is a film that unapologetically pushes for acceptance on both individual and societal fronts; and has its menagerie of characters representing the various moral standpoints. Religious prejudice and stigma are here eloquently presented (Jules needs to cover his arms with big gloves and skin garments to conceal his etched arms); economic exploitation is also part of a storyline arc, but somehow more invoked rather than explored as a full-fledged plan. Yet we take Jules' POV in investigating a magnificent forest land and setting (to be destroyed); Simran Dewan's cinematography knows how to light up the closed, isolated bedrooms and give its large vistas a new breath.
Production design and costumes are the film's asset here, tenderly evoking a time when children had to wear their hats -but also making a bedroom a field of discovery. The adventure itself rolls effortlessly, even if predictably. The two kids' characters are complimentary, making their adventure time together convincing and engaging to behold. (Their fight with nature's forces sometimes seems to restrain credibility, even for a fantasy-minded film).
'Adventures in the Land of Asha' sometimes leaves out the big dramatic confrontation in favor of the wilderness explorations, making its force felt less strongly. Yet its third act takes a decisive dramatic turn; the elements of fire and water, health and illness are here fittingly juxtaposed. It is convincing for its children's audience and still leaves open the case that not all happy endings need to be fantasy-based. A naturally fresh adventure and film.
'Adventures in the Land of Asha' screened at the 2023 Riga International FIlm Festival