Thursday 13 December 2007

Travellers and Magicians (2003) Khyentse Norbu

Never having seen a Bhutanese film before, I wasn't sure what to expect. I certainly wasn't expecting to see a bunch of old men competing in archery to the accompaniment of whooping and leaping about akin to a Maori war dance, but that's what I got as the film started. We're in a small village called Khumbar in the gorgeous mountainous countryside of Bhutan and everything seems slow, peaceful and quiet except at the home of one government official, apparently recently hired.

He dreams of getting out of the village and emigrating to the States. Certainly he seems to fit the stereotype: he has long hair, smokes, plays loud rock music, has pictures of mostly naked women all over his walls and can't seem to sit still for more than about five minutes at a time. He's only been back in the village for a month, but is already heading out to Thimpu to visit the American embassy. He's Dondup, played with a restless edge by Tsewang Dandup. After missing the bus, he ends up waiting for a ride with other travellers, chief among them a Buddhist monk called Sonam, played by Sonam Kinga with a powerfully knowing visage.

The differences are obvious and go far beyond basic appearances. Much of it boils down to the differences between traditional and modern. Sonam wears traditional Buddhist robes and Dandup wears an I Heart NY T-shirt. Sonam plays the dramyin, but Dandup has a radio cassette recorder with dead batteries. Sonam tells long stories to pass the time, while Dandup keeps quiet and just wants to get to where he's going. Given that the writer/director is a Buddhist monk, I'm sure there's a lot more that could be read into the film too that I'm just not seeing yet, and I'm seeing plenty in Sonam's story.

And yes, you read that right. Writer/director Khyentse Norbu is a Buddhist monk and this is his second film, apparently the first feature film to be shot entirely in Bhutan. I'm not sure where the first, Phörpa (or The Cup), was shot, but it was made in Hindi and Tibetan instead of Dzongkha, the native language of Bhutan. All the actors look like amateurs, quite possibly because there may not be such a thing as a professional film actor in the whole of Bhutan, but some have appeared elsewhere and reading up on them suggests that Khyentse Norbu has a sense of humour.

Tsewang Dandup appeared in The Cup, but nothing else. However he, like many of the actors play characters exactly or closely matching their own names. Lhakpa Dorji, who plays Tashi, the lead in the story Sonam the monk tells, has problems following his old rescuer down a mountainside, yet it seems that his one other film credit was as himself, a sherpa in a short film about climbing Mount Everest. Irony is alive and well and living in Bhutan, of all places.

All in all, there's nothing really to fault here. The direction, writing, editing, acting, you name it, are all superb, and surprisingly so. There's even a small amount of special effects, which again are surprisingly excellent, combined with some very cool cinematography. It certainly doesn't hurt that the landscapes this little road movie's travellers move through are all gorgeous. Definitely a success and a surprising one that I'll have to revisit.

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