For centuries, the sight of a shepherd with a pony tail has been common place in Tibet. However, things have changed in the nation, just as the occupying power intended. Filmmaker Pema Tseden often pointed out such truths—getting arrested and badly battered for his efforts—or so international observers suspect. Again, details are sketchy, just as the Communist authorities want them. The circumstances surrounding Tseden’s incarceration and hospitalization makes the piteous fate of his latest cinematic protagonist all the more poignant. In addition to the cultural oppression, the CP occupation also has a corrosive moral influence in Tseden’s Tharlo (trailer here), which opens a week-long run this Wednesday at MoMA.
Tharlo has come to the nearest provincial administrative center to receive his I.D. card, but has no context for the errand. Frankly, he is not even used to being addressed by name. Never before has he had to prove his identity. Of course, the local police chief finds Tharlo’s bemusement amusing. He is also condescendingly impressed by the Tibetan shepherd’s ability to recite a long Chairman Mao speech, even though mostly of the ideological meaning is lost on him.
Of course, an I.D. card needs a photo, so Tharlo will have to visit the local photographer catering to such business. She in turn sends him across the street to get his hair washed by the hairdresser, Yangtso. She makes quite an impression on the traditional herder with her short hair and modern attitudes. She also happens to be young and attractive. The flirtatious time they share together leads Tharlo to question his pastoral life, but his growing doubts will distract him at inopportune times.
Adapting his own novella, Tseden creates a parable of modernist temptation and subsequent downfall that eclipses Dreiser in its tragic significance. Although the local authorities are not Tharlo’s direct antagonists, Tseden makes it clear they created the climate that made his victimization possible. The film is also visually stunning thanks to the vastly cinematic vistas of Tharlo’s Tibetan plains and Lu Songye’s stark black-and-white photography.
Despite the rugged locales, Tharlo is a relentlessly intimate film filled with uncomfortable silences and telling moments. As the title character, Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima looks like his picture should be in the dictionary next to the term “world-weary.” His haggardness is plain to see, but his innocence is just as palpable. He and Tibetan actress-vocalist Yangshik Tso develop some highly ambiguous but undeniably potent romantic chemistry together. Rather than just playing the femme fatale, she gives the worldly Yangtso subtle flesh and blood dimension.