Judge Joel Pearce doesn't know whether Khyentse Norbu is a bulletproof monk, but he sure can direct a picture.
"There's no point in staring at an empty road."—The Monk
I wasn't sure what to expect from the first feature film ever shot in the Kingdom of Bhutan, directed by a Buddhist Lama. I did expect it to be a patiently told fable. I didn't expect it to feel contemporary and morally complex, though. This is a fine film, one that will delight those looking for something new.
Facts of the Case
Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) is a government official, recently sent to a very small village in Bhutan. He hates the remoteness of the village, and wants desperately to get away from it all. He has a chance to emigrate to America, but needs to get to a nearby town in two days. When he misses the bus, he is forced to hitchhike, hoping to make it on time.
He is not the only one journeying in that direction. He is soon joined by an elderly apple seller and a monk (Sonam Kinga), also traveling to town. He rejects them at first, frightened that cars unable to carry them all will pass him by, but breaks down as evening approaches, and begins to wait with them. They are joined by an old rice-paper seller and his beautiful young daughter.
To pass the time, the monk tells Dondup a tale of another young man who wished to move on to bigger and better things. It is a tale of magic, passion, and murder, but manages to hit very close to home for Dondup, who finds himself surprisingly attracted to the young woman who lives in the quiet little village he hates so much.
When key figures from royalty or religious orders direct films, they often turn out as bloated, sloppily designed messes. Consider The Legend of Suriyothai, an overwhelmingly dull vanity project by the prince of Thailand. Fortunately, Travellers and Magicians manages to avoid all of the pitfalls that are often associated with this kind of project. Khyentse Norbu has a sly sense of humor, a keen eye for the beautiful landscapes of his homeland, and a complex sense of morality that weaves together a story whose challenging questions linger long after it is finished.
And so, Travellers and Magicians is none of the things I was afraid it would be. There is no heavy-handed moment of discovery as Dondup realizes that he is like the man in the story, no vows to return to the village and help protect the ancient ways of Bhutan. In fact, Norbu understands why the big, bright, outside world appeals to so many from this remote land. Having been educated and exposed to everything that the more dominant Indian and American cultures have to offer, he has experienced both worlds first hand. He obviously loves the simplicity and peace of Bhutan, yet his having brought a film crew into his land doesn't feel hypocritical after watching the movie. Although the government needs to fight hard to maintain Bhutan's way of life, change is inevitable. Norbu is more interested in the process of modernizing gracefully and respectfully, than in fighting to cling to a set of dying rituals.
Although Travellers and Magicians has patient pacing, it is never dull. Norbu's characters are injected with so much personality and humanity that they are just as brilliant as the scenery. Dondup experiences what so many young people from small towns experience, and he is never portrayed as a bad person. He is a man who has tasted something bigger, and wants more. The monk is playful rather than preachy, and spins a yarn full of passion and feeling, good and evil. All of the performances are riveting, in spite of a completely amateur cast.
The cinematography and editing is just as wonderful. Bhutan has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and it has been captured with a keen and caring eye by Norbu and his international crew. The backdrops are even more impressive than those in The Lord of the Rings, made better by the fact that they are all real. The editing is smooth and unique, expressing a worldview that is both exotic and comfortable. Although it's not from an established film industry, it's one of the most accessible foreign dramas I have ever seen.
The end of the film is a bit abrupt, and it bothered me at first. However, as I thought about it afterwards, I couldn't think of a better way to end it. A more conventional ending would have left a bitter taste in my mouth. This way, the story could continue on in a number of ways. If the journey is more important than the destination, perhaps it is best to end the film while the characters are still deciding what to do.
To make things even better, Zeitgeist Films has released Travellers and Magicians on a beautiful DVD. The image quality is exquisite, with only a slight graininess to distinguish it from Hollywood blockbusters. The color transfer is particularly amazing, with colors almost too vivid to be real, yet somehow never quite overwhelming. Color filters are used during the monk's story, and these sequences are even more beautiful. The sound is strong as well, for a stereo track. It is in the original Dzongkha (also a first, I believe), with well-written English subtitles. The voices are clear, and the music is mixed in well.
There are several special features as well. There is an excellent production featurette, which includes the usual footage and interviews. Since this is the first feature shot in the country, though, it presented a number of challenges. Norbu and his crew prove to be interesting and intelligent, making this one of the best production featurettes I have seen in quite a while. There is also a reel of them joking around behind the scenes, which is amusing to watch. A commentary track would have been a nice edition, but I don't feel cheated after watching the footage included here.
I have nothing bad to say about Travellers and Magicians or this DVD. Some viewers may find it slow and quaint, but it is never boring or trite. It is a delightful fable, told in a style that has long since disappeared in this part of the world. That it should come in the form of such an incredibly shot film makes it a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don't miss it.
Not guilty. everyone should spend two hours traveling through this dreamland.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Production Featurette
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