Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Golden Kingdom: Young Novices Home Alone

Coming is age is hard enough without separatist violence. However, one resourceful young novice Buddhist monk will also experience spiritual discoveries and existential peril in American filmmaker Brian Perkins’ Golden Kingdom (trailer here), a Burmese language narrative, shot on location at a working provincial monastery, which is now available on VOD from Kino Lorber.

Ko Yin Witazara is not the biggest of the four novices, but nobody objects when the abbot puts him “in charge” while he visits the nearest city on business. Initially, the four boys enjoy their freedom from supervision, but they largely keep to the same routine, because what else would they do in a rural monastery? Unfortunately, the good vibes are short lived. Soon they start hearing mortar fire from the hills and more alarming noises from the surrounding brush. Things get desperate when the neighboring farmer stops delivering rice. For the sake of his novice brothers, Witazara will venture out in search of food, encountering insurgents and perhaps the spirits that feed off their violence.

Eventually, Kingdom takes a mystical turn, but Perkins never over-sells the supernatural elements. Frankly, the first act could well appeal to admirers of Into Great Silence. Yet, at its heart, his narrative is always about Witazara assuming responsibility. Shine Htet Zaw is a striking natural, giving one of the deepest, least affected performance you could ever hope to see from a youthful thesp. As Witazara, he carries the film squarely on his shoulders. The young lead also forges some easy camaraderie with Ko Yin Saw Ri, Ko Yin Than Maung, and Ko Yin Maung Sein, who as Ko Yin Wezananda, Ko Yin Thiridena, and Ko Yin Awadadema, respectively, always come across as convincing novices, because they are.

Bella Halben’s arresting cinematography is perfectly suited to the stillness of the monastery and the archetypal magical realism. Both the look and the ambient sounds of nature really transport viewers to Burma (that’s what the Burmese still call it, so that’s good enough for us), not unlike Scorsese’s upcoming Silence. Throughout it all, Shine Htet Zaw emerges as modest but commanding young star. Highly recommended for those who appreciate its coming-of-age and Buddhist themes, Golden Kingdom is now available on VOD platforms, including iTunes.