Friday, March 01, 2013

IBFF Showcase ’13 (SF Bay Area): The Great Pilgrim

Xuanzang was a Buddhist monk dedicated to peaceful scholarship.  Yet, his life indirectly inspired many martial arts sagas.  The classic Ming novel Journey to the West is very loosely based on his pilgrimage from China to India.  While the novel is still widely read and adapted to many formats (particularly the chapters involving the Monkey King), Xuanzang’s historical odyssey is often overlooked.  Yet, it was quite a dramatic adventure by any earthly standard, as viewers will soon learn from Jin Tiemu’s documentary The Great Pilgrim, which screens this Sunday during the 2013 InternationalBuddhist Film Festival Showcase in the Bay Area.

Xuanzang was born to a prominent family, but he was orphaned as a young child.  As a result, the local Buddhist monastery became his home at an early age.  He had a scholarly disposition, but was deeply troubled by the lack of Buddhist texts available in China.  In the Fifth Century, India was still considered the fountainhead of Buddhist though, so Xuanzang set on a pilgrimage to acquire and translate the great Sanskrit teachings.  It would be an arduous trek across the Silk Road, through deserts, mountain passes, and hostile kingdoms.

According to Xuanzang’s account and the writings of his disciples, the monk nearly died of heat and dehydration during an early stage of his journey.  It is clear that Xuanzang’s faith sustained him, even to those unwilling to accept a higher authority in the matter.  Throughout the pilgrimage, Xuanzang spread Buddhist teachings throughout western China, Central Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Jin emphasizes the cinematic nature of the tale with dialogue-free dramatic re-enactments and breathtaking shots of the sweeping ruins that once were the great cities Xuanzang passed through.  Indeed, following in the monk’s footsteps looks like it would be a once in a lifetime tour for amateur archeologists.  While the Chinese voiceover narration sounds a bit overpowering at times, it presumably got the job done for domestic audiences.

Regardless of one’s personal religion, Xuanzang’s story is hugely inspirational.  Jin also persuasively establishes his considerable historical importance as the author of the monumental Great Tang Records on the Western Regions and a geo-political game-changer who converted hostile powers to Buddhism.  A great looking doc, Pilgrim features striking cinematography and some richly crafted sets.  A shrewd selection for this year’s IBFF showcase, it vividly depicts an enormously significant Buddhist figure without ever feeling preachy or didactic.  Highly recommended as a documentary for those who usually prefer narratives, The Great Pilgrim screens this Sunday afternoon (3/3) at the Smith Rafael Center, as the IBFF Bay Area Showcase continues.