Sunbeaten Path, Search for Drime Kunden


In the few movies made in Tibet a businessman uses his wealth for a road movie search for living exemplars of unconditional compassion, ready to give away even their own children, their own eyes, to those who demand them, and by demanding prove their neediness.

In Tibetan movies people wrestle with the greatest love of their life, only to learn to let go when circumstances change, and to let go of the deepest grief as life goes on. The greatest, purest, reciprocated, requited love of one’s life slips away through trivial events – a letter was delivered late- and the consequent loss must be fully faced.

A young man, in an unforeseeable accident, runs over his mother and she is crushed by his tractor. He spends the movie so utterly stricken by grief that not even a pilgrimage to distant Lhasa, prostrating bodylength by bodylength the whole way, sufficed to assuage or purify the mind; and yet he wanders on, dead but living, across the parched earth, not caring to live, along the highways on which roar China’s trucks bearing all manner of modernity bound for Lhasa. His companion is an old man who does not hesitate to get off the bus, in a windswept barren plain, to be with the young man, recognising in him the existential limbo of a man unable to live or die.

Throughout these movies (The Search for Drime Kunden by Pema Tseden and Sunbeaten Path by Sonthar Gyal) the landscape of Tibet is a major character, sometimes so much so that faces are underexposed, and audiences accustomed to close-ups and swelling music at dramatic plot turns fail to read the land, eroded, gullied, wintry bare, but never far from a thundering road. When the motherless young man begins to return to life, he awakes, having slept as usual in the open, to find himself and the whole landscape covered with overnight snow. Suddenly the land is beautiful, blanketed, refreshed and for the first time we see animals, black against the snow.

None of this makes sense to a young Dharamsala audience accustomed to Holly/Bollywood, to having everything spelled out explicitly, and then emphasised again by soaring musical crescendo and intimate close ups telling us how to emote. The Dharamsala audience laughed in all the wrong places, seeing in a man crazed with grief only craziness; in a man who gave away his wife to a blind widower because that man’s need was greater, only a buffoon. Neither Tseden’s dispassionately distant camera nor Sonthar Gyal’s extreme close-ups of faces seemed a readable film language to this audience.

The inner life of Tibetans eludes them, remains unreadable. Profoundly reflective movies, plotted in classic Tibetan style as stories within stories, they are seen in Dhasa only as comedies of ridiculous people doing ridiculous things. In The Sunbeaten Path the grieving man’s utter authenticity draws not only the old man, who abandons his journey and family expectations to be with another in extremis, the young man’s eyes also draw a woman staffing a cheap hotel, who casually fancies him, inviting him to be the key in her lock for the night, just because she glimpsed Lhasa in his eyes.

The only sense the hyperpoliticised young of Dharamsala can make of this is to see it all as slapstick, third rate underexposed slapstick made by amateurs. In vain does the Swiss Tibetan organiser talk of these as art house movies Dharamsala is unfamiliar with, or as thangkas, since they share a refusal to bother with foreground, leaving the background, the land of Tibet, to do the talking. In thangka paintings the background is the foreground, realist western fetishisation of perspective is ignored; likewise here on screen.

These movies are profoundly Tibetan, not only in that all the actors are Amdowa Tibetan, and so too are the directors. The camera too is utterly Tibetan, moving in Tibetan ways, pulling back rather than zooming in, letting the audience work it out for themselves, refusing to overdramatise, just as in Tibetan operas where the evil old queen repents of the harm she has wreaked, but her awakening, the turning point of the entire plot, always happens offstage. The underemphasis is deliberate, as Pema Tseden has said in interview, pulling back to give the audience room to work out the poignant, intimate authenticity of the moment for themselves.

In these movies people live for more than comfort, habit or the cocoon of being a busy activist for Tibet as a way of making life meaningful. Tibetans are forever on the road in these movies, forever detouring to revisit old loves, old attachments, only to find they have to move on. The purpose of life is not just this life. Drime Kunden is not an ancient improbability, he lives, as does his virtuous wife. Unconditional compassion is still possible, in the Tibet of these movies, but in hyperpoliticised Dharamsala it is unimaginable.

Politicising everything turns the grief of Tibetans at the racist contempt of the Chinese into anger and cries of rangzen. Exiles inscribe onto Tibetans in Tibet their own political slogans of independence, insisting that the grief and pain are desperate, unbearably urgent political demands, ”the ultimate act of frustration and despair”, as TYC calls it. The deeply religious sacrifice of these young monks and nuns, as unconditional as that of Drime Kunden, is revoiced as usual by professional exile voices of the voiceless.

The exiles are deeply inspired by the courage of Tibetans who burn their bodies to awaken others, and are bravely willing to take the message everywhere, even to try to storm the insulated G20 and its endless preoccupation with the market, to the exclusion of all else. I admire the determination of these brave young men to make the world awaken to the cruelties China inflicts on Tibet; but I also grieve at their inability to read the land of Tibet, or the hearts of ordinary Tibetans onscreen.