Friday, August 11, 2006


Tsewang Dandup & Sonam Lhamo
play Dondup & the rice paper maker’s daughter

Since the age of seven, Bhutanese lama Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche) has been recognized as the present reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, one of the two founders of Khyentse lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, a non-sectarian version that seeks to integrate the best of all forms of Tibetan Buddhist practice. Khyentse Norbu also is a world-class filmmaker, having made two motion pictures, The Cup and Travellers (sic) and Magicians, that have been international hits.

I saw The Cup when it came out in 1999, a film about the impact of the World Cup soccer championship on a group of young Tibetan initiates living in exile in Northern India. A comedy, The Cup is the antithesis of the ponderous-but-respectful films westerners tend to make about Buddhism. Seven Years in Tibet & Little Buddha are not atypical instances of the problem. Khyentse Norbu, then a thirtyish student at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, actually served as a consultant to director Bernardo Bertolucci (indeed, the monk who comes to Seattle to find the young initiate in the film is called Lama Norbu). It was working with Bertolucci that eventually led Khyentse to make his own film six years later – financed & produced by people whom he had met in the process. If Little Buddha’s moment of scandal centers around the decision – which smacks to my mind more of Daoism’s love of paradoxical intervention – to cast Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha, The Cup is full of such moments, as when the monastery’s leaders worry that such non-Tibetan practices as failing to reserve bathing solely as a New Year’s activity will cause their young charges to lose their unique sense of their heritage.

Travellers and Magicians similarly is built of just such little clashes. The first dramatic film ever made in the nation of Bhutan, using only native, non-professional actors¹ (the Buddhist monk is played by Sonam Kinga, a major researcher in the state planning agency, for example, co-editor of the volume Gross National Happiness; Dondup is portrayed by Tshewang Dendup, a TV reporter & producer with the Bhutan Broadcasting Service), the film tells the story of Dondup, a young village official, and his attempt to get to Bhutan’s capital where he has an opportunity to get a passport to America, a nation about which he has obviously fantasized a great deal. In the U.S. he hopes to wash dishes or pick apples for a living, an obvious downward move for a college educated government bureaucrat. When he receives permission from the village leader to make the trip (under false pretenses of attending a religious festival), he dances around his room playing air guitar, his walls covered with pinup posters & one large U.S. Army recruitment ad.

But leaving the village takes forever & when he gets to the roadside for the bus – which appears to come every other day – he just misses it. So instead he hopes to hitch a ride. At that moment, however, a peasant with a bundle of apples that he hopes to sell at the festival walks up, presenting the problem that they now represent too much volume for a normal passenger car – some of whose drivers seem thoroughly westernized. Smoking, tapping his foot, making every known gesture of anxiety & frustration imaginable, Dondup decides to walk back up the road so that future drivers will come upon him first, an old hitch-hiking strategy I recall from the 1960s.

Now, however, he is joined by yet another hitch-hiker, this one an itinerant Buddhist monk. When the monk realizes Dondup’s frustration, he chooses to walk down the road and join the apple man waiting for a ride a hundred or so yards hence. But, as no ride comes & night arrives with a thunderstorm, the trio huddle together around a makeshift fire and monk decides to tell Dondup a story.

From this point forward the film intersperses the two narratives, one of Dondup attempting to get a ride to the city, the second of this fable, which is told in pieces over the next two days as the group eventually swells to six travelers with the arrival of an a rice paper maker (also on his way to the festival to sell his wares) and his beautiful daughter who has just dropped out of school to help her dad after her mother’s death, and – during the only serious ride the group gets during the film, in the back of a truck – a drunken man who says little but has a great singing voice.

In the fable, the monk tells of a young student of magic who seeks to get away from his village & dull life, only to discover that his desires lead him to pain & suffering. As the group in the frame tale attempt to get to the city, Dondup and the rice paper maker’s daughter flirt seriously enough for everyone in the group to realize that future life in the village might not be so barren as the young officer imagines it to be. The monk tells Dondup that “the Buddha says hope causes suffering,” virtually the topic sentence of the film.

The frame tale is a road movie, with significant amounts of humor & just enough hints of arousal to keep it taut & exciting. The fable, a tale within the tale, is pure film noir, with elements of magic & the supernatural. Balancing the two narrative lines is difficult enough, but the real challenge for Khyentse Norbu is how to create a film that is deeply & openly spiritual without, by that fact alone, becoming preachy. It’s a distinction that Rachel Blau DuPlessis makes in the title essay of her new book, Blue Studios, between poems that tell you what to think (or that model it, “thinking hard for all of us”) & poems that are themselves demonstrations of thinking as an active, ongoing, indeterminate process (DuPlessis herself is a great example of the latter, as are, say, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian & Barrett Watten). Before you conclude that the monk is a stand-in for Khyentse Norbu himself, you have to remember that this director is a Buddhist monk who himself went to London to learn cinema, who uses post-production facilities in New Zealand & Australia & largely a western crew, and who runs not only multiple monasteries, but several non-profit foundations in the west, as well as other businesses – offering everything from mediation tapes & training to three-year retreats in Australia & tours of Bhutan. One argument that he is making, in the context of his world, is that there is more to cinema than Bollywood. In the film, the final decision of the village official does not point toward the idea that there might be only one (or even any) right answer here.

Bhutan historically is one of the most closed societies on the planet, at least this side of North Korea. Travellers and Magicians offers some breath-taking views although, outside of the opening scenes in Dondup’s village, very little of town or city life there. The couple whom the wayward magic student meets up with in the fable are living in something like a tree house. The present day travelers are on the road in the most literal sense – their situation feels more like (tho less surreal than) Godard’s Weekend than it does the episodic adventures of Che & Alberto in Motorcycle Diaries. The Himalayas are visible throughout the frame tale – but always at a distance. So what you don’t get is a sense, say, of what a nightclub, should such exist, in the capital might be like, as you glimpse the Mongolian rock scene in Closer to Eden.

Khyentse Norbu says that he does not think of himself as a film director who happens to be a monk, but rather as monk who may have a few movies in him yet to do. A large reason why he’s successful, I think, has to do with his structuralist sense of film composition. This is a film that would storyboard well – and indeed isn’t that hard to put into a synopsis. But at the same time, it is all the extra “stuff,” the breath-taking backgrounds, the dense forest, that account for much of the film’s presence. In a very real way, they are (at least partly) the tale being told.


¹ Tsewang Dandup, the lead actor in the frame tale, had a very minor role in The Cup, which primarily used monks & novices from the Tibetan exile community in India as actors.


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