Judge Joel Pearce takes a look at this underground film about Chinese oppression in Tibet.
In Tibet, nothing is more dangerous than the truth.
As an online reviewer, I rarely think about the freedom of speech that I exercise when I write a review. At the end of the day, I can say whatever I want about the films that I review, even if it pisses off a lot of people. I don't live in fear that my reviews will be removed, and I definitely don't get scared that I will be beaten in prison because of them. Windhorse is a film that reminds me how lucky I am to have that freedom, and acts as a reminder that it isn't shared by everyone.
Facts of the Case
Many years after the death of their grandfather at the hands of the Chinese, Dorjee (Jampa Kelsang) and Dolkar (Dadon) have moved to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. Their cousin Pema (name withheld) is a nun at a nearby monastery. Each of them have a different outlook on the Chinese occupation. Dorjee is tired of small resistance movements, but fears getting involved in anything more dangerous. Instead, he spends most of his time smoking and drinking. Dolkar is making waves as a popular local singer, but her Chinese boyfriend is pressuring her to sing pro-Chinese songs in order to kick start a recording career. Meanwhile, Pema is angry as the government cracks down on her monastery. When a protest lands Pema in prison, Dorjee and Dlkar must decide whether to risk their own safety to do what's right on their cousin's behalf.
On most levels, Windhorse isn't a great film. The acting is amateurish and stiff, the script is clunky and heavy handed, and the cinematography is awkward. These are all things that shouldn't happen during ordinary filming circumstances. Windhorse, however, is anything but ordinary. Because it tells the truth about the treatment of the Tibetan people at the hands of the Chinese, the film had to be shot in secret. Director Paul Wagner and his crew shot exteriors in Lhasa as tourists, secretly getting the footage they needed. The rest of the film was shot in Nepal, where the government is frightened to let anti-Chinese sentiments get out. They are, after all, the very small neighbors of a grumpy super-power.
The result is a film that grew on me immensely as I watched. At first, I found myself distracted by the amateurish look and feel. Quickly, though, I realized that I was seeing something I hadn't been able to see before. I have seen a number of films about Tibet, and I've had the same complaint about all of them. Almost without fail, the attempts at showing the results of the Chinese occupation have been blunt and one-sided. Finally, this is a film that feels different. The focus here is on the way that Chinese propaganda and manipulation actually works, rather than just showing overt systems of control. Although there is violence here, it's not much more invasive than constant surveillance and a network of spies. I was also fascinated by the way that Dolkar is sucked into helping out in the creation Chinese propaganda. It's both complex and plausible.
Of course, the production situation meant that Wagner wasn't able to hire professional actors to fill the roles. At first, this was a problem as the cast stumbled through the choppy dialogue. As the film progressed, though, all of them started to grow into their roles. By the end, the same actors were delivering sincere, powerful performances. I'm not sure whether this was a result of them adjusting to the world of filming, or whether it was just me getting sucked in by the story. Either way, Windhorse is ultimately a compelling and thought-provoking experience. It just takes a while to get there.
New Yorker has delivered a fine disc, especially considering the quality of the source. Since the crew was filming in secret, the whole film was shot using mid-'90s digital consumer camcorders, which was then blown up to 35mm. As expected, the results don't do justice to the stunning Tibetan scenery. That said, the transfer doesn't look nearly as bad as it should. It is an anamorphic transfer, and it has a surprising level of detail. The colors are accurate and balanced, though there is an unintentional digital grain in dark scenes. It looks like a high-quality television production from the era, and is more than watchable. The stereo track is just as solid, with clear dialogue and a minimum of background noise. The music has been well integrated, too. My only major complaint is Devon's lip-synching during her music numbers, which is some of the worst I have ever seen. The subtitles are generally well translated, although there are several obvious errors.
This edition of Windhorse is also well stocked in the extras department. There is a 20-minute featurette, explaining why the film was made and some of the struggles that were faced during production. It's a good featurette, and one that creates a lot more appreciation for the film. The other major extra is a commentary track from Paul Wagner and his two co-authors, Thupten Tsering and Julia Elliott. It covers a lot of the same information as the featurette, though with a lot more detail. The context of Windhorse is so important, and these two extras really deliver in explaining what we need to know in order to understand and appreciate the film. The only other extra is a gallery of production stills, which actually proves to be an impressive collection of pictures.
On the surface, Windhorse is a long way from becoming a classic. It simply lacks the polish and skill of other films that have covered the topic of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. This one comes from the heart, though, and has been created with an authenticity and audacity that I have rarely seen. For that spirit and heart, I warmly recommend Windhorse to anyone who has an interest in international justice, and humanity in general. Just fight your way through that first 20 minutes.
Not guilty. I applaud the nameless heroes who risked everything to bring us this unique film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Production Featurette
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