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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Mountains, Magic, Madness, Sinner, Saint
by Donald Levit

To today’s computer-effects generation, Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint may be too tame. And its ending may disappoint mature viewers as they learn this is but half the story, the less compelling for many, and that history’s reformation into sainthood will have to wait on funding and until 2009 at an optimistic earliest.

The story of greed, suffering, black magic, revenge, death, love, and eventual mysticism and compassion is a first feature from young Neten Chokling, a Bhutanese-born Tibetan lama based, for obvious political reasons, in India. Chokling--Chokling Rinpoche, “precious”and “teacher” in Tibetan Buddhism -- also filmed in India’s Himalayas, up near the northern border, with real monks comprising a lion’s share of cast and crew. The Super 16 mm format is dodgily appropriate to an isolated insular realm given authenticity with borrowed antique jewels. The rocky dun high plateau cut with ravines and snow-capped peaks is beautiful, and beautifully integrated during the many treks on foot or mule, but not allowed to predominate over the stripped tale of one man’s ultimately inner journey. Equally in tasteful tune is the Joel Diamond score, performed by the hero’s mother Kargyen (Kelsang Chukie Tethtong) and nun Ani Choying Drölma.

Cinematography (by Paul J. Warren), landscape and music ably do what they are supposed to, contribute in an integral way without stopping the whole to take little individual bows. If and when the completing half is filmed, it will be “the more poetic . . . most important part of [Milarepa’s] life,” resolving the path of suffering, forced vengeance and horrified reaction of this initial installment.

In her amazing account of disguised journey through the sealed-off country to the Forbidden City, Alexandra David-Neel emphasizes its superstitions, legends, sorcerers and visible demons; if such beliefs or realities held in 1923, how much greater their power a millennium ago, when Thöpaga, or “Good News” (monk Jamyang Lodro, at age sixteen and up), had not yet reinvented his spirit as visionary poet Milarepa, “Cotton-Clad Repa.”

Born into a well-off family, the boy (Dechen Wangmo, at age seven), sister Peta (Ngawang Tsomo at four, Tashi Lhamo at thirteen), and their mother sink to the level of abused menials in their own place when Uncle Gyaltsen and Aunt Peydon (Gonpo and Tsamchoe) usurp their father’s inheritance. Mother holds a desperation party, to announce her son’s betrothal to Zesay (Tashi Choedon Gyari, at fifteen) and ask for return of the holdings. Dice-gambler uncle denies any such estate, most all the villagers support him, and in her humiliation mother goes over the edge.

An itinerant monk warns to “be careful, the consequences can be terrible,” but, drowning in her suffering, the woman threatens suicide if Thöpaga does not learn sorcery to destroy the evil relatives and unsympathetic villagers. His face usually blank, the taciturn youth is saved from pursuers by the magic fog of Dharma Wangchuk (Jamyang Nyima), who encounters him at a campfire and is the son of the Precious Master-Teacher Yungton Trogyal (Tibetan abbot Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, also the artistic director).

Meditation and the levitation of stones won’t do the trick, and the dutiful aspirant must seek out the hermit Master, whom “there is no one more powerful” than, whose dream skull-demons will prepare the way to black powers of awful retribution. Soon appalled by the bloody results, chased by survivors and his own demons, he finds refuge with a studious monk (Khenpo Lobsang Tenzing Rinpoche), there to realize the harm and emptiness of revenge and to set out for a new path of compassion.

Alas, that that will have to wait for the second part, “Translation.” Some of the participants, including the director himself, may be recognized from Bhutanese lama Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup, but here, in place of comedic loveableness, is austere classic drama tinged with early Kurosawa, among Chokling’s favorites. The deadpan and deliberate pacing probably will not appeal to a general public, but those with the patience to savor a crafted story can eagerly -- and hopefully -- look forward to 2009. 

(Released by Luminous Velocity Releasing and rated “PG” by MPAA.)

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