Review of two new Tibetan films
Tuesday 1 November 2011, by
Pema Tseden’s “Old Dog” (Khyi rgan) opens with a handsome Tibetan youth riding into a town on his motorbike with an aged, shaggy dog tied to a chain. The youth looks virile and has a strong bodily presence on the screen, but we learn later in the film that he is impotent [reminiscent of Joan Chen’s depiction of a Tibetan man during the Cultural Revolution in “Xiuxiu - The Sent Down Girl”]. “Old Dog” is about the emasculation of body and space in the guise of progress and development. The film deals with the encroachment and destabilizing effect on Tibetan – or perhaps any – culture [not of the Cultural Revolution but] of China’s economic transformation. The film draws from contemporary history by situating the story in the sudden emergence of a feverish appetite among China’s nouveau riche for the mastiffs owned by Tibetan nomads, such that recently a mastiff named Hong Dong sold in China for $1.5 million.
These dogs, used by the nomads to guard their tents and animals, have become an object of desire and a vulgar display of wealth in China. The craze for them has spurred social forces into interaction with remote nomad communities for the first time, through a lucrative trade in the dogs, as well as theft and kidnapping of them, that has forced Tibetan families into choosing between selling their dog before it is stolen or keeping the dog knowing that is most likely to be dognapped sooner or later.
At the start of the film Gonbo, played by amateur actor Loche, is visiting the nearby town to sell his dog to a local Chinese dealer. As the motorbike chugs along the muddy street, there are signs that this is a frontier town under construction, with dirt-track streets deep in mud and half-built houses along both sides of the almost deserted road. The scenes are shot from a distance, giving a sense of the mundaneity of life there. Pema Tseden does not focus on one particular aspect of the town, allowing no close ups or detail shots that might gives us the consolation of getting a sense of its character. No particular subject of focus is allowed or intimacy permitted, depriving the viewer from the illusion of participation, limiting him or her to observing from a distance: we are truly spectators. What we observe from afar is a bleak landscape, the monotony of everyday life and the daily struggle of a family grappling with globalization and pressure from the metropolitan centre.
Gonbo sells the dog, but we learn that he has done it without his father’s approval, because, he argues, “it is better to get some money before the dog gets stolen.” But once the father discovers this, he goes to the town himself to recover the dog, which he has raised for 12 years and is deeply pained to be parted from. The father draws on Tibetan tradition, according to which it is taboo to use dogs as a commodity or to allow them to be bought and sold. “You don’t look like your father - your face doesn’t even resemble his”, he tells the dealer, whose father had been a hunter famous for having raised twelve mastiffs.
In “Old Dog”, the family dog becomes a source of tension and conflict within the family and community; society starts to break down in its dealings over the animal. Pema Tseden might have had in mind the Tibetan word chag go, which stands for disaster, misfortune, conflict, and so on, because it is these that, paradoxically, the beloved family dog seems to be the source of, not because the dog is possessed or bad but because of the avarice and desire of others. The relationship between father and son is disturbed, the dog has to be guarded at all times from dognappers, dealers constantly harass the family with increasing offers, and Gonbo lands himself in jail after fighting with a dog dealer to whom he is determined to sell the dog.
“Old Dog” is a Tibetan’s view of the Tibetan landscape today, in which poor nomads confront everyday life under the march of state-sponsored economic progress and its marginalisation effect on local families. It presents the contemporary reality of nomads on the Tibetan plateau not through images of luminescent skies or rolling alpine meadows, but a harsh and damaged landscape. From the spartan homestead we see barbed-wired fenced fields, a reference to a controversial policy recently introduced to end the use of common land on the grasslands: the fence becomes a metaphor in the film for confinement and for state encroachment on local lives. In one scene, a sheep is stranded between fences as it struggles to join the flock on the far side of the field, but it serves as comic relief only for those who don’t know the politics of fencing. “Old Dog” is littered with motifs that speak volumes of intrusion: the fence that signifies both the economics of privatization and deprivation of the land and the people, the dealer who tries to persuade the old man to sell his dog by saying that the dog will have a better life in the city (the old man responds, “So what is it that the city folks are frightened of?”), and the treasured possession of the poor that is stolen because of greed and commercial opportunism.
The dramatic ending leaves one overwhelmed with thought rather than emotion, without the director inducing sentiment through the use of close ups or single images. Instead, the audience’s gaze is directed to the footsteps of the old man as he walks away, without looking back to see the results of his action. The shot continues for several minutes, with only the sound of the old man’s breath. Our gaze is turned not to the old man, whose face we do not see, but to our own minds.
Pema Tseden uses amateur actors in this film as in most of his work, giving a naturalistic sense but avoiding sentimentality. The father in “Old Dog” is shown going about the town and interacting with his family almost as in real time, so that, even though he represents the essence of “the good man”, there is no perpetuation of the “noble savage” image so often found in ethnic drama. Instead, we see a dignified portray of a decent man dealing with the complex impact of intrusion.
“Old Dog” is a powerful portrayal of life in Tibet, but is also about the universal struggle experienced by the poor and the marginalized in the face of globalization. It is also a film about those who are disadvantaged and live at the margins of the economic boom in China today, whatever their ethnicity. It is an evidentiary account, a narrative record of the contemporary condition, which is shorn of didacticism or polemic, and as such it will be regarded as one of the best depictions of the contemporary reality of Tibet.
Sonthar Gyal is the cinematographer for “Old Dog” and worked with Pema Tseden on his previous films, making them two of the leading figures in the first generation of independent Tibetan filmmakers. Now Sonthar Gyal has stepped back from the camera to make his directorial debut with “The Sun-Beaten Path” (Dbus lam gyi nyi ma), which has already won a major award this year - the Dragons & Tigers Award for a first time director at the Vancouver Film Festival. “The Sun-Beaten Path” is described as a road movie and a journey of self-discovery, which, like “Old Dog”, also uses amateur actors and location-shots in the director’s home area in the north-east of the Tibetan plateau.
The film begins with Nyima, the young protagonist, pushing a motorbike off a cliff. The film tracks back and forth through a sequence of flashbacks to tell the story of what has happened, allowing us to see that Nyima is on a journey and is consumed with guilt. We discover that the motor-bike is at the source of this: while driving his mother back to the village on a farm tractor, she has been killed in an accident involving the bike. Nyima, blaming himself for the accident, is distraught and confused, his world in ruins around him, and by the time the film opens he has already completed an agonizing and self-imposed journey of expiation from his home to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa – a thousand miles or more – in which he has prostrated himself every three steps along the way.
The film shows the final days of his return journey from Lhasa, hitching rides in trucks and buses or more often walking, as he nears his family home again. He hardly utters a word in the film, although we recognize his bewilderment and hardship through the changing complexion of his face as the sun bakes his skin. We discern that Nyima is uncertain about whether he is morally entitled to return to the family home, and at one point leaves a bus he had just boarded because it is going too fast. Along the way, he is befriended by an elderly man who senses that the youth is troubled but assumes that he has fallen out with a wife or girlfriend. Nyima at first rejects the old man’s companionship but, the old man, knowing the hardship of the road and that an inexperienced traveler can face death from the harshness of the sun and land, is undeterred and persists in trying to persuade Nyima to accept that his guilt has been sufficiently appeased. The film is both a story about the “kindness of a stranger” and discovery.
As in “Old Dog”, an old man represents kindness, the strength of the past, and the accumulation of wisdom as a means of coping with the reality of the present. In “The Sun-Beaten Path”, most of the dialogue consists of the old man recounting his life experience to Nyima as a way of imparting advice and consolation. The boy appears not to be listening but we are made to realize that it is the old man who leads to Nyima’s reconciliation.
“The Sun-Beaten Path” tells a simple story with depth and uses amateur actors to carry off the film in a naturalistic style. Both films rely not on speech to tell their stories but on the landscape and the long shot, giving their actors a powerful screen presence while positioning the audience as observers rather than participants. The whole theatre of action unravels before us without a particular vantage or point of focus, creating the filmic equivalent of what Pema Tseden has described as the aesthetic of a scroll painting or wall mural in which an entire story is depicted rather than a single scene or subject.
In “Old Dog” and “The Sun-Beaten Path”, romantic visions of majestic snow-covered mountains or rolling alpine pastures are replaced by a harsh, relentless landscape against which the people battle to irk out living and within which the towns appear alien and incongruous. This provides the backdrop to the contemporary reality of transformation that is taking place on the Tibetan plateau. The two films tell stories of everyday existence which are distinctively Tibetan stories but which at the same time address universal themes of struggle and redemption without sentimentality or romanticization.