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Unmistaken Child

Oscilloscope // 2008 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // December 10th, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Adam Arseneau was mistaken quite often, as a child.

The Charge

A devoted disciple. An unexpected mission.

The Case

An intimate foray into the ritualistic Tibetan Buddhist world, Unmistaken Son is a paradoxical experience in the enjoyment department. By traditional measure, this is a boring film; an overly long documentary that moves too slowly for non-devotees, set at an inexorable pace. Yet, the journey is both moving and inspiring, resonating at a level that most films never reach, a profound and passionate glimpse into something transcendental. It's a contradiction. What can I say? I'm very…exorable.

After the death of Geshe Lama Konchog at the age of 84, his long-serving young disciple, Tenzin Zopa receives a mandate from His Holiness the Dalai Lama: search for his master's reincarnation. Tenzin, still grieving over the loss of his teacher and father figure—a man he has sat with since the age of 7—embarks on a four-year quest to find the reincarnated being of his master, Geshe-la, by any means necessary. He travels by foot, mule, and even helicopter. Tenzin speaks to young children, looking for those with special characteristics, guided by enigmatic clues and relics left behind in his master's passing. He performs highly ritualized tests designed to determine the likelihood of a reincarnation in his young prospects. He eventually finds a young boy, only a few years old, who passes all his tests, and returns to the Dalai Lama for the final verdict…

Unmistaken Son is nothing more or less than a travel journal of a young disciple travelling the world looking for the reincarnation of his deceased master. A simple handheld camera gives us unfettered access into the most intimate and profound acts of Tibetan faith, a rare glimpse into a world Westerners rarely see. Wherever he goes, the camera follows. Whomever he speaks to, the camera records it, impassively and without judgment. Sometimes he speaks to the camera, sometimes he does not. There is no pretense, no artificial performance for the benefit of the audience, just sincerity and honesty in simple action. Zopa is almost entirely uninterested in the camera as he goes about his task, and no one seems bothered by its presence. We see how the monks live and go about their daily rituals with no cause for concern on their part.

To Western eyes, the story told here is nothing short of surreal: a young disciple, still suffering the pain of the death of his longtime master, is tasked with seeking out his reincarnated being. Gathering clues, he ventures out into the world on a four-year journey, until he brings back a tiny cherub boy for approval by the Dalai Lama. Consider the family, who suddenly are swept upon by monks in flowing robes, proclaiming their baby to be the reincarnation of an enlightened being, and, with your permission, we'll be taking him away to the monastery for the rest of his life, thank you very much. There is no command or order issued, because that is not how things are done; Zopa simply prays that the family will understand the importance of the sacrifice they are making. What of Zopa, himself barely more than a child, now suddenly thrust into the role of parent, of guardian and teacher, re-educating his own master's reincarnation? You don't have to be Buddhist to be taken in by the intoxicating paradox of the faith, of death and life and rebirth all intertwined into a single element.

As for its accessibility, this is a challenging question, because Unmistaken Child is less a documentary in its own right and more a living embodiment of the tenants and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. Calling it an "enjoyable" documentary is like calling the religion itself "enjoyable"—it kind of misses the point. A meditation on the ineffable nature of reincarnation is not really a thumbs up or down situation, if you catch my meaning. If nothing else, Unmistaken Child is an unabashedly honest film, simple and straightforward about its amazing journey. It is hard to ignore the ineffable sense of serenity and beauty that Unmistaken Child generates. Often, the footage is nothing more than a simple recording of a faith that transcends Western concepts of life and mortality.

Unmistaken Child has a DVD transfer to match its low-key aesthetics and production values—one handheld camera taken along a four-year journey with no frills or effects. The image is excessively soft, almost distractingly so, with noticeable interlacing and a color palate heavy on yellows and reds. It is a far from ideal picture, but it still manages to capture with great aplomb the stark beauty of the Himalayan landscape. We get both a surround Dolby 5.1 and stereo presentation, which are virtually identical in dialogue and only differ in the music. The score is nicely ethereal; a compelling blend of strings, horns, and tingling percussion instruments setting a somber backdrop against the cross-country journey Zopa embarks upon, even mixing in drones of throat singing now and again.

Trying to recommend this documentary is a challenge. In one sense, this may be the slowest and most lackadaisical film ever shown on DVD. Of course, to expect otherwise is to show disregard for its subject matter. Like all things in the Tibetan Buddhist faith, Unmistaken Son moves slowly, deliberately, methodically and with great self-awareness. Tenzin Zopa is surprisingly charismatic and loveable; a fresh-faced young man with a large smile and genuine grief at the loss of his spiritual teacher. It is impossible not to get caught up in his quest, however ineffable it may seem on the surface, simply by proxy.

Unmistaken Son is a cup of tea that won't appeal to all documentary seekers. This is filmmaking at its most unpretentious and intimate, just a camera observing an act of pure devotional faith, with no frills, bells, or whistles. Chances are strong that you wouldn't even be considering a film like this unless you find yourself curious or interested in Tibetan ideology and religious beliefs, but even those skeptical might find something profound here. In one sense, you will get out of this film whatever you are willing to give. Go in with expectations for entertainment and you will find the experience lacking, but go in with an open mind and Unmistaken Son will take you on a journey.

The Verdict

High marks for believers, but hard to recommend to the casual observer.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 75

Perp Profile

Studio: Oscilloscope
Video Formats:
• 1.66:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, Tibetan)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Tibetan)
• English
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Religious and Spiritual

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes


• IMDb
• Official Site

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