Saturday, March 02, 2013

IBFF Showcase ’13 (SF Bay Area): Thangka

Dunzhu’s impending blindness is not an uncommon phenomenon for painters of traditional Tibetan Thangkas (works that frequently, but not exclusively, depict sacred Buddhist figures).  Like drummers who still perform despite developing deafness, they can still perceive and transmit their art.  However, the dwindling ranks of his peers alarms the old artist, who sets out to find the reincarnation of his late teacher in Mongolian-born filmmaker Hasi Chaolu’s Thangka, which screens during the 2013 International Buddhist Film Festival Showcase in the Bay Area.

Dunzhu is a traditionalist, who has no patience for his son Basen’s modern-influenced Thangkas.  As his eyesight steadily deteriorates, the old man is determined to find a protégé worthy of being his artistic heir.  Clearly, that will not be Basen, but the dutiful son nonetheless assists his father as he searches for his reincarnated master, in much the same manner as Tibetan Buddhist monks seeking reincarnated scholars.

Their quest bears fruit surprisingly quickly, but there are complications.  While Dunzhu is convinced the armless Gaga is the one, the nomadic artist’s slacker attitude is disappointing.  As the national Thangka exhibition fast approaches, Dunzhu’s presumed successor struggles with his new role, while Basen seeks treatment for Gaga’s young sister Zhuoma, who also suffers from progressive blindness.

Shot on location in Tibet, Thangka features some striking vistas and cherry picks some of the more cinematic architectural backdrops in Lhasa (in marked contrast to Pema Tseden’s Old Dog).  Not surprisingly though, Hasi is rather vague about why Tibetan cultural practices like Thangka painting are disappearing, casting it largely in terms of modernity conflicting with tradition.  The presence of an occupying power is completely ignored.  Still, it all looks great through cinematographer Wang Gu’s lens.

While many supporting characters are messily shoehorned into Thangka, the unexpected connections between the two families work quite well in dramatic context, rather than feeling forced.  As Dunzhu, Luo Sang’s Zen-like gravitas perfectly anchors the film.  Pubu Ciren’s Basen is also sufficiently earnest and long-suffering in a sympathetic way.  Recording artist Suolang Wangmu (born into similar circumstances as her character) adds a bit of celebrity, as well as credibility for Tibetan audiences as Gaga’s grown sister, Baima.

Addressing themes of art, family, compassion, and of course Buddhism, Thangka champions what might be called traditional Tibetan values, which is refreshing in any film.  It is also surprisingly uplifting.  Yet, the problem of Tibet’s atrophying culture it insufficiently diagnoses remains a very real concern.  Regardless, Thangka will hook in most viewers with its sincerity, particularly those with an interest in Tibetan art and Buddhism, when it screens tomorrow night (3/3) at the Smith Rafael Center, as a selection of the IBFF Bay Area Showcase.