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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Your Kisses Send Me to Shangri-La
by Donald Levit

Pema Tseden rushed from Denver just in time for a post-screening Q&A about The Search/’Tshol. The Amdo Tibetan simultaneous translator for Asia Society was not so lucky, so the exchange was done instead in Mandarin. This being the last full day of his three-week U.S. tour, he spoke mostly about today’s film but will already be gone for Thursday’s The Silent Holy Stones/Lhing ‘jags kyi ma ni rdo ‘bum, his first, 2005 feature once conceived of as part of a trilogy.

As “Soul-Searching in Tibet: Films by Pema Tseden (Wanma Caidan [in Chinese],” the two films are related through concern with that country’s folk-opera and its forms and in their use of non-professional actors. Moreover, the very process of roaming to find cast for the first became the road-movie thread of the second one, and the director came across the “businessman” whose true tale of love was scripted into that second and retold in the SUV crossing the high plateau to seek, audition and camcord.

One of three children of nomads and the first of his compatriots to attend the Beijing Film Academy, the director/screenwriter and novelist presents his own work as a corrective to what the Dalai Lama terms “widespread misunderstandings about Tibetan culture.” That forbidden Land of Snows has been Shangri-la’ed in legend and movies and brutalized in Chinese propaganda touting its own bringing in of civilization and development. It has been a century since the 1905 beginnings of Chinese cinema, the director reflected, likening the current situation to that in Iran in that he must still tread eggshells of censorship; yet doors open, and he is proud that The Search is the first film shot in Tibet, in the Tibetan language and with local crew and actors.

To achieve that formal distancing that makes viewers decide their level of involvement, the camerawork is largely long and medium-long shots, of both humans and sere landscapes. Faces are only darkly individualized within the vehicle through whose windshield the bright outside passes by. Addressed as “girl” or A Je “sister,” heroine Drobe (Lumo Tso) refuses to remove the scarf that hides her lower face, is gone when she at last takes it off, and is absent from the namthar theater group photograph that is never shown, anyway. A “gift from heaven” find, the man who did actually give away his wife to one in need and thus parallels the opera-within-the-film, is also shown only from the back.

The story is thus concerned not so much with character in individual depth as with the here-and-now of the plateau’s several autonomous areas, that is, with a social context and, inescapably, a physical-geographical backdrop as well. As the director (Manla Kyab), cameraman (Rigdan Gyatso) and driver (Sangye Tashi) listen to the installments of businessman Dobe’s (Tsondrey) frustrated love for Kalsang Tso, they go from village to village to check out actors for a projected film version of opera Prince Drimé Kundun.

Like the real-life filmed-from-behind man, the Prince’s story of compassion and self-abnegating love is about a being who gives away to charity eyes, wife and three children. Mixed in is gentle humor in the bribed messenger boy, the costumed elder who cannot recall lines (Shawo Lugyal), the giggling teens asked to sing, the father reciting in front of family, and even in the tipsy rock ‘n’ roller questioning the interpretation of compassion.

These are but moments, while the rest grows too static in this serene attempt to de-exoticize in favor of reality. The businessman’s narrated chapters, for example, would have been better as flashback instead of non-dramatic telling.

Most promising of all is the girl in the scarf, seen frontally only framed by landscapes reflected in the car’s side window. Her local performance as Kundun’s wife Mande Zangmo praised by the headsman, she barely speaks and offers a lame “I feel sick, I am cold” for keeping her face covered. She will participate, and accompany the four men, on condition that for the male lead they get her ex-stage partner and -boyfriend, Kathub Tashi (Kathub Tashi), now a teacher in a city.

Against natural sounds, the quartet of men and the girl make stops in hamlets, schools, restaurant and bars, even monasteries -- she waits up the road -- and as they draw closer to the city, the businessman wraps up his tale inspired at the outset by the girl in the scarf, whose own love and personal search will end with irony and ambiguity. Presumably the filmmaker-within-the-film has finished casting and is ready to shoot.

These stories are enmeshed with others as in busy brocade-rolled thangka which are finished with an “opening the eyes” ceremony. The film whole, however, is slowed by many longueurs. Without TVs or video players, the screen characters, and the nation’s people, still conserve the oral tradition we have lost. The difficulty for the restless eyes of developed countries -- the desire to see something happen -- arises from culturally conditioned expectations.

(Released by Himalaya Audio & Visual Culture Communication; not rated by MPAA.)

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