Saturday, November 10, 2018

DOC NYC ’18: A Little Wisdom

It is sort of like the Buddhist Garden of Eden, except it really exists. At least you can visit the Sacred Garden of Lumbini in Nepal, where Lord Buddha was born. Rather logically, the pilgrimage site is home to a number of monasteries, including this one dedicated to training young potential novice monks. Yuqi Kang follows five-year-old Hopakuli as he goes about his cloistered life in A Little Wisdom (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 DOC NYC.

The young children in this unidentified monastery are under no obligation to take their vows once they come of age. They are free to leave whenever they want, but where would they go? Most have been left in the monks’ care by desperately poor families, both to ease their financial burdens and so the young boys can enjoy better food and living conditions. In fact, most of the novices readily concede their lives are much easier in the monastery than they were back home.

Unfortunately, life is still tough for Hopakuli. Even though the boys are wearing robes, they still do all the rotten things you would expect from ordinary kids. In this case, they bully Hopakuli because he is the youngest. Frankly, his older brother Chorten is one of the worst offenders. In many ways, Vija is more of a brotherly figure to Hopakuli, but the fifteen-year-old is approaching a crossroads, when he will have to decide if he will stay or return to secular life.

Many viewers expecting something serene and meditative in the tradition of Walk with Me will be utterly shocked to find it is more of a cross between Kundun and Lee Hirsch’s Bully [Project], which, ever so awkwardly in retrospect, was distributed by the Weinstein Company. Poor Hopakuli is just a kid, who really is not that bratty for his age, so he really deserves a break.

Nevertheless, Kang and her co-cinematographers, Amitabh Joshi and Paola Ochoa, vividly capture the hushed vibe and tranquil surrounding environment of Lumbini. Clearly, she developed a high degree of trust with the young novices, because they obliviously forget she was filming when they really start to let Hopakuli have it. Yet, there are hopefully moments too. To her credit, Kang has also been quite fair to the monks, especially in her publicity interviews. Seriously, if you think you can do a better job sustaining a monastery full of kids in a remote corner of Nepal than you’re welcome to try.

A Little Wisdom will definitely transport viewers to Lumbini, but it is not the transcendentally immersive experience many patrons will be hoping for. Yet, they will find a bit of that wisdom therein, if they look for it. Recommended for viewers intrigued by monasticism and exotic locales, especially on a full-sized theater screen, A Little Wisdom has its New York premiere today (11/10), as part of DOC NYC, ahead of its arrival on iTunes scheduled for 11/20.