Thursday, April 08, 2010

Soul-Searching in Tibet: The Search

Evidently, castings calls are not a simple process in Tibet. A director scours remote provinces for actors suitable for his planned cinematic adaptation of the traditional Tibetan opera Drime Kunden, but the fruits of his efforts are somewhat mixed in Pema Tseden’s The Search, the first installment of Soul-Searching in Tibet, a two film retrospective of the Chinese-trained Tibetan filmmaker, that screens this Saturday at the Asia Society.

Prince Drime Kunden is a revered Buddhist figure, who gave all his worldly possessions to the less fortunate, including even his family and his very eyes. However, younger generations are not as familiar with his story. With all mandatory state business conducted in Mandarin Chinese, Tibetan literacy has suffered under the Communist occupation. Indeed, finding actors who can sing, act, and read Tibetan proves to be a bit of a challenge for the nameless director. However, he has a promising lead on a potential Drime Kunden: Kathub Tashi a former actor for a regional opera company now serving as a school teacher in a distant village.

The director is not the only one who wants to see Kathub Tashi. His former co-star-girlfriend joins the filmmaker and his small crew, in hopes of rekindling their affair. She certainly has the voice to reprise her role as the heroic martyr’s wife in the prospective film, but they are not sure she has the right look. Though reportedly beautiful, she refuses to remove her veil in their presence.

While Pema Tseden (a.k.a. Wanma Caidan in Chinese) has much in common stylistically with the contemporary independent Chinese filmmakers, most notably his affinity for long-held wide shots, Search is definitely a story driven film. In fact, it is all about stories.

Through the auditions the director holds at theaters, schools, and monasteries, we see an abbreviated version of Drime Kunden performed in installments. Yet, as the film unfolds, it is the long story of romantic frustration told by the local business man shepherding the director through province as they drive from one point to another that takes on surprising significance.

As the businessman, Tsondrey proves to be an excellent storyteller, keeping the film sharply focused as mile after mile of Tibet’s striking but unforgiving landscape passes across our field of vision. Indeed, the film’s perspective often suggests a camera lens, viewing events from a distance rather than up-close and personal. Yet it is its stories, particularly that of the businessman, that grounds the film in universal human concerns.

Search is a much livelier film than it might appear if one just saw a few minutes out of context. It clearly illustrates the conflicts between tradition and modernization, even in remote corners of Tibet, while also demonstrating the continuing importance of storytelling as a means of cultural and personal expression. Though documentary like in tone, it also features some excellent performances, particularly Tsondrey and the nearly silent but physically expressive Lumo Tso as the veiled actress. Highly recommended, it screens this Saturday afternoon (4/10) at the Asia Society and admission is free (but reservations are advised).