Sunday, February 04, 2007
Dreaming Lhasa, Ranting Man
Went for a special screening of Tibetan feature Dreaming Lhasa last night. It's an interesting film, though (fittingly enough) one fairly conflicted about its own identity. At its heart, it's an exploration of the Tibetan struggle for independence from China and the lives of Tibetan refugees living in India. As such, it explores the familiar themes of exile - memories of one's homeland, the quest for identity in an alien world - spliced together with vignettes of the atrocities being commited by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. All of this is moving purely for its genuineness, and the film serves as a guilty reminder of how overlooked the cause of the Tibetan people is internationally.
Dreaming Lhasa's central achievement is that it manages to show, somewhat gawkily, not only the long-suffering dignity of those committed to an endless fight for their homeland, but also the way this dream of Lhasa permeates a younger generation of Tibetans - these young people hang out in night clubs, play rock music and pool, exchange e-mails with their friends in the US and dream of going there sometime themselves, and yet when the demonstrations calling for a free Tibet go out, there they are in the front ranks, waving their candles, shouting with the rest. There is nothing particularly astonishing about this, and the film does tend to wax a little too nostalgic, but its affective purely because of its genuineness.
All of which makes you wonder if the film maker's wouldn't have been better off making a documentary. Instead we get a cliched plot, complete with a film-maker from New York, an ex-monk on a mission from his dying mother, an entirely implausible love interest and scene after scene that has been put together for the sole purpose of giving expression to an idea or a point of view. It doesn't help that the acting is definitively amateur; the two leads aren't so bad - Jampa Kalsang manages his role as the questing monk with economical competence, and Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso has her moments of inspiration, and is beautiful enough so that you don't notice the rest - but if you're looking for anything above the level of high school theatrics from anyone else, forget it. Much of this is deliberate: the cast of the film was selected for authenticity rather than experience, and includes former resistance fighters, leaders of the Tibetan government in exile and even the Dalai Lama's personal driver, so it's a little unfair to judge them on the merit of their thespian talent. The trouble is that the film seems unable to make up its mind between being authentic and being cinematic, and ends up lost in an uneasy compromise between the two.
Take this Karma person, for instance - the young film maker from New York, making a documentary about the Tibetan exiles, and searching for her own identity as a Tibetan in the process. Aside from the fact that everything about her is a cliche, why, exactly, is she part of the film at all? Only because the producers needed to raise money from the West and so needed to have a character that Western audiences could relate to? Karma's romance with Dhondup is one sustained false note from beginning to end, and her assistance in his search is largely illusory - there's really very little the two of them do together to find the man Dhondup is seeking that he couldn't have done just as well by himself, much as the movie tries to convince you otherwise.
I see why the producers chose not to make this a documentary, why they felt the need to include Karma - it doubtless increased the visibility of their film immensely, and attention, more than anything else, is what their cause really needs. But it's still sad to see the integrity and dignity of this potentially beautiful film sacrificed to the political need for quick publicity. The real poignancy of this film lies in seeing statesmen like Phuntsok Namgyal and Tsering Topgyal having to put on make up and mouth inane dialogue just so the world will finally listen to them.
The other exciting event of the screening was that I got buttonholed at the door by an irate 50-something who ranted at me for five minutes about how pathetic young people these days were. I mean, okay, so he had a point. It was an on-campus screening of the movie as part of a series of films dealing with human rights issues from across the globe, and there were about 15 people in the audience, about 4 of them under 40. Still, as I repeatedly (and unavailingly) tried to point out to him - I was there, so there wasn't much point haranguing me about it. And anyway, my youthful good looks notwithstanding, it's been years since I was an undergraduate, so speaking of them as 'my generation' makes no sense. None of this got through though - I got five minutes of accusing stare, coupled with questions like "What do you people do on Saturday nights anyway?" and "How can you not care about these issues?" Talk about blaming the choir.