In cinematic terms, Bhutan is probably better known as the location of the highly publicized and hugely exclusive wedding of Hong Kong movie legends Carina Lau (劉嘉玲) and Tony Leung Chiu Wai (梁朝偉) in July last year, rather than for its own cinematic output.
So while Milarepa is certainly something of a cinematic curiosity, sadly, this worthy effort about the early life of the Tibetan Buddhist saint Milarepa is little else. The film is being marketed on the back of the relative success of Khyentse Norbu’s Travelers and Magicians (2003) on which Neten Chokling served as second-unit director.
The lama-turned-filmmaker makes his own directorial debut with Milarepa, but in picking such a worthy, and indeed sacred, subject, he has jettisoned the humor and cultural interest that made Travelers such an appealing film despite its lack of cinematic finesse.
While Travelers gained considerable interest from its depiction of contemporary small-town life in Bhutan, which few can claim to be familiar with, Milarepa takes place in a generic Tibet that might be that of Milarepa’s time (the saint is said to have died in 1135), or might be that of today. Chokling sets out to tell his story in a step-by-step account that has all the narrative vibrancy of performing the Buddhist equivalent of the stations of the cross.
The story begins with Thopaga’s childhood in a rich family and its fall into poverty and shame at the hands of money-grubbing relatives. It then moves on to the desire for vengeance, which first grows in his mother’s heart, then is taken up by the son, who is sent off to learn black magic. Then there is the terrible act of vengeance itself, subsequent self-realization, and a desire to find transcendence. Unfortunately, that’s were the film stops, with the journey that will turn Thopaga into the Buddhist saint Milarepa slated for a sequel, which according to the distributor will begin production later this year. The best that can be said is that the director’s total immersion in his material precludes the peopling of his film with exotics. He is presenting the bread and butter of his faith, and for those who are interested, it is rough but perfectly wholesome fare.
In terms of performance, Milarepa is not without its moments, and Kelsang Chukie Tethtong as Kargyen, Thopaga’s mother, makes a real attempt at acting. There are flashes of naturalism from the non-professional cast, but on the whole, performances are rather stilted, and the dialogue is totally focused on underlining the main moral points. The desolate magnificence of the Tibetan plateau, with its temples perched precariously on the tops of cliffs and its miles of barren scree and rough bushland are displayed with an insouciance and tender familiarity that sets the film apart from the breathless wonder of Western presentations. Milarepa, for all its faults, is a good antidote to exotic fluff such as Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997).
DIRECTED BY: NETEN CHOKLING
STARRING: JAMYANG LODRO (THOPAGA/MILAREPA), KELSANG CHUKIE TETHTONG (KARGYEN), ORGYEN TUBGYAL (YONGTEN TRUGYEL), GONPO (UNCLE GYALSTEN), TSAMCHOE (AUNT PEYDON)
RUNNING TIME: 94 MINUTES
IN TIBETAN WITH ENGLISH AND CHINESE SUBTITLES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
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