Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Travellers and Magicians": Film Review

As the first feature-length film from Bhutan, lama-director Khyentse Norbu's 2003 follow-up to his festival success of soccer-mad Tibetan monks in "The Cup" generates attention-- by that statement alone. What's to recommend for those curious? The previous twenty-six reviews sum up the modest, sincerely given "grass is greener" plot, as does the summation.

While the cast of this--also the first film in Dzongkha, the native language taught in schools there--is billed as non-professionals, I understand that the lead character of Dondup is the exception--as a radio actor. (As a relevant aside, I've reviewed in May, 2012, Jamie Zeppa's popular memoir of teaching in Bhutan, "Beneath the Sky and the Earth," and I believe that Dondup was the student with whom she as a young Canadian teacher fell in love.) In the film, Dondup's played by Tshewang Dendup, who has an appealing, long-haired raffish charm that fits his impatient, cocky, Westernized character who'd rather pick apples in America than eat one provided by the seller of the same from his basket, as they wait for a lift to the capital, Thimphu. He's told by the postmaster "things take time here," but he's eager to flee their remote village. Dondup wants to get out of Bhutan from Thimphu, while the apple seller, joined by a rice-paper maker and his (of course) sweet-faced daughter and a confident storytelling monk, wait to go to the capital to attend the "tsechu" grand festival.

It's a familiar frame: the varied cast hiking or hitching on the road hears a story along the way. The monk, strumming an admittedly handsome "dramyin," a dragon-headed six-string lute, passes the time with a fable about Tashi, a farmer's son who resents learning magic and longs similarly for escape. He meets the comely (of course) younger wife, Deki, of an cranky old shaman, Agay, in a storyline of a May-December marriage interrupted by a handsome stranger that "The Postman Always Rings Twice" or its Chinese adaptation "Ju Dou" dramatized.

The plot unfolds genially and gently. It's not fast-paced, and reflects the sensibility of its makers and actors. This isn't to romanticize, but it does depict Norbu's determination to offer the world and his own homeland a reflection of how Buddhist themes might enrich people, by cinema.

Some viewers complained about the ending. Without spoiling it, I felt this concluded as a short story would. It's more a literary or spiritual realization than a contrived epiphany or big, overwhelming climax. It pleased me as a more honest, if suggestive and not too tidy, final scene.

Meanwhile, the two stories of the travelers and the magician intertwine by editing and overlap. "Relax and enjoy the scenery," the monk advises his restless companion. The special effects show the perhaps limited budget, but they're respectable for an arthouse film, and while I actually wanted more of the landscape than what could be glimpsed largely by the side of the nation's only east-west road, the added feature on the DVD helps. I expected a greater panorama than the setting offers, although the film promotion stresses how difficult it was to make the film there.

Here, Norbu's ambitions as a Buddhist monk to channel "a painting of light" on film, and to craft a "modern-day 'thangka'" (an illustrated painted tapestry), to inspire his Bhutanese to make films that don't follow other nations, but lead them, gain explication. The way the fable points to Dondup's own realizations finds more elaboration in the commentary by the actors playing the monk and Dondup. This is the type of humbler film that does not stress the moral or everyday message; it may feel slower than you're used to. I recommend viewing its special feature afterwards, for it emphasized what (at least for a Westerner) might be too subtle to catch on a first viewing of "Travellers and Magicians." (Dharmaflix discussion with Norbu; Official site; YouTube. Review to Amazon US 11-28-12)

P.S. I found after viewing this that I'd already read the director's lively introduction (Apr. 2009 review) "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist" under his Buddhist name, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. See also Lesley Ann Patten's documentary about him, "Words of My Perfect Teacher" (reviewed by me Dec. 2012).

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