Sunday, April 11, 2010

Soul-Searching in Tibet: The Silent Holy Stones

Kids love to park in front of the TV. Evidently that even includes young Tibetan monks. At least the programming is somewhat educational in Pema Tseden’s feature directorial debut, The Silent Holy Stones, which concludes Soul-Searching in Tibet, the Asia Society’s two film retrospective of the Chinese-trained Tibetan filmmaker’s work.

The young Monk is preparing for his yearly visit home for Losar, the Tibetan festival of the New Year. Though reasonably dutiful, he and an even younger reincarnated Tulku can hardly wait to sneak a peek at the lama’s television. Rather than worldly programming though, they are enthralled by the story of Drime Kunden, the revered Buddhist figure who looms large throughout Pema Tseden’s relatively limited filmography.

Returning home with his father, the young monk is delighted to discover his family’s newest prized possessions, a television, DVD player, and the multi-disc set of Journey to the West, the epic story of Tansen Lama’s pilgrimage. In fact, the prospect of television at home makes it difficult for the young boy to sit through his grown brother’s traditional production of Drime Kunden.

In many ways, the young monk embodies the conflicts between the traditional and the modern at play in Holy. Yet, it only applies so far. While captivated by the edifying Buddhist epics, he has no use for the Hong Kong action flick playing in the village’s improvised movie house. Indeed, though he might be as prone to distraction as are most ten year olds, he is still devout in his way.

A gentle soul, the young monk’s innocent perspective makes Holy a sweetly endearing film. The young lead, Luosang-danpei, has a remarkably winning presence for a non-professional child actor and a smile that lights up the screen. Following him through the monastery and his hardscrabble village is surprisingly fascinating, even oddly hypnotic.

Though Pema Tseden (credited here under his Chinese name Wanma Caidan) never oversells the point, there is a wistful sense that modernism might have the upper hand over traditionalism, even in this remote corner of Tibet. For instance, to his grandfather’s disgust, his brother’s Drime Kunden is immediately followed by so-called “disco” dancing. Yet, as represented by the rarified stone carvings of his grandfather’s old friend, Holy never denies the value of tradition.

Holy might be a simple slice-of-life style film, but its remote settings and thoroughly likeable young protagonist make it a pretty exceptional life to witness. While it will probably seem a bit slow to multiplex audiences, it moves along quite briskly compared to the deliberate work of many contemporary independent Chinese filmmakers. A film of quiet but abundant charms, Holy screens this coming Thursday (4/15) when Soul-Searching in Tibet concludes at the Asia Society.