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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Wish-Fulfilling Jewel
by Donald Levit

A young Japanese reviewer attending the Unmistaken Child screening needed my handkerchief to dry her tears, because “His parents won’t see him again.” From a crowd, father, mother and grandmother Ahpe Ngodrup, Mochung and Lhamo may catch distant sight of their baby grown to manhood, but they can nevermore approach him as equals. Renamed, he is blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of Tibetan Buddhist master Geshe-La, Lama Konchog.

That eighty-four-year-old monk died in 2001 at Nepal’s northern Kopan Monastery, leaving disciple Tenzin Zopa sorrowful and rudderless at twenty-eight. By the time he was six his family had decided on his wife-to-be, envisioning his help to them and his marriage, household and children, but he chose instead to follow Geshe-La, then living in humble flowered meditation retreat above Tsum. Ever since, the older man had been family, teacher and mentor and made all the younger one’s plans and decisions.

After the ritual cremation, the order decides that, unaccustomed to the world as he may be, the disciple is the one to find the master’s reincarnation in a preferably long-eared boy who may be anywhere and must be young enough, less than four, to be separated from his family so as to be brought up to his exalted station. The designated searcher cannot trust personal feelings to “judge higher than your estate,” and given that he is not capable of observing any but outward signs, a few traditional tests will point the way, such as picking out the deceased leader’s rosary, bell and bowl from among several.

This seeker is as much at the center as the sought Unmistaken Child in Israeli director, co-writer and –producer Nati Baratz’ documentary, shot over the four years of the quest. The choices that will identify the reincarnation in the child are similar to those in Kundun, an atypical Scorsese feature about the life of the current, fourteenth Dalai Lama (who appears in the non-fiction) from discovery-identification at age two through education, exile and unpleasantness with Mao’s China; scripted with His Holiness’ cooperation, this 1997 based-on narrative sticks close to the facts even if settings and nonprofessional Tibetan actors are prettied up.

People, dwellings, towns, monasteries, flapping prayer flags and cairns in the new film are presented without comment, dirt, runny noses and nosebleeds, high altitude sun- and wind-chafed cheeks and all. Easy-to-read yellow titles indicate time and place, but Zopa is the guide, shy, beguiling, humorous -- flowers are “free” until picked -- and himself growing in assurance before our eyes. Buddhism with its buddhas, bodhisattvas, historical figures, protective deities, tenets, symbolic postures, iconography and schisms, is not broached -- could not be in 102 minutes -- for Westerners’ clarification.

No outsiders comment at all, as the viewing point is that of the disciple-searcher, who will locate and accompany the lama reincarnate and, for the present, repeat the tutor-surrogate father pattern of his own development. With toys, beaten eggs for scrambling or soda to stir to fizzing, indeed, he is himself a man-child again.

Scripted or posed pieces blend seamlessly with the spontaneous non-fiction. The Himalaya on the near horizon, the narrow rock-walled village paths and basic dwellings are impressively before the camera but not allowed to turn story in the direction of travelogue, and arresting local faces, too, are part of the whole.

Red-robed Zopa’s journeys are on sneakered foot -- once in a North Face windbreaker -- less often by horseback, and once or twice in a helicopter or automobile. After asking in several tiny places and visiting families whose male babies turn out not to fit the bill, he locates the likely candidate, who must be examined by superior lamas and, with their endorsement, the Dalai Lama himself.

The boy and his “Big Uncle” discoverer return to the home village for the parents’ difficult consent to give up their child “for the benefit of sentient beings.” Sometimes looking serenely Buddha-like and mature beyond his years, the shaven chosen one reflects puzzlement and yet acceptance at a crowded public investiture but, among worshippers’ offerings, most treasures a toy twin-prop helicopter and pleads, “Don’t go!” as his family members pay respects and leave him to a new life.

The celluloid story must end here. The lonely disciple has realized his appointed task and has also journeyed inwards. Steered by this faithful servant, the baby reincarnated Lama Konchog begins his own voyage into the unknowable future. 

(Released by Oscilloscope Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)

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