“‘Journey to the West’ on Rewind”

04/22/2012

Still from 'The Silent Holy Stones'

Two Films by Pema Tseden

Given the Western interest in Tibetan culture – albeit narrowly relegated to the people’s spiritual life or their future as an exiled/occupied populace – the international market for films is surprisingly indifferent to actual filmmakers from Tibet. The view from the plateau has been slow to emerge out of the darkness of repressive control. Take director Pema Tseden, who hails from the Amdo region: he has made three features, which have played at a few festivals here and there, but which aren’t available to a wide audience. They’ve swept by too quietly, although they hold within their gently devastating furrows valuable and inimitable insights into Tibet’s contemporary situation.

There is the problem of censorship for filmmakers working within China, which must be especially hard for those in such volatile and oppressed areas as Qinghai and the T.A.R. It’s a wonder that socially-engaged films can be produced at all in dialects of Tibetan (not to mention getting screened overseas), since suppression of the language has been an integral part of China’s program against dissent in the region. As a result, much of what we see concerning Tibet in films has been made by Westerners, and filmmakers like Tseden must be careful not to overtly criticize the state. Luckily for his career and freedom, doing so is not his goal. Trained in Beijing, he makes films about his homeland that look at life there in terms more complex than merely a social or humanitarian problem. Critique and analysis are embedded within them, and exist without having to resort to sanitized or overtly limited ways of representing it. To look at the particular details within his work is to see and see through looming structures that dominate the landscape, the people and their consciousness.

Old and new don’t so much clash as pass one another in the night in Tseden’s first film, The Silent Holy Stones. The main character, a young novitiate to an elderly lama, lives for the brief moments he and his friends can take to go to the quarters of one of the senior tulku of the monastery to watch videos on his television set. While these flashing visions give them a peek at worlds beyond the quiet labor and study of their mountaintop home, they receive them not with captivated awe but with the persistent, thrumming infatuation of pre-adolescent boys everywhere. When the little monk’s father, a well-to-do businessman in a big fur hat, comes to pick the boy up for his annual Losar trip back to the home village, he also bears news of a brand new television set at the family home.

Still from 'The Silent Holy Stones'

The Silent Holy Stones (2005)

On their way to the village, father and son visit an old man, a friend who lives amidst a desolate wilderness with little more than a pile of flat stones that he uses to make mani carvings all day long. He is evidently one of the few practitioners of this ancient art still around in the area, and he has no apprentice to keep the business going once he is gone. This poignant, living reminder of the old ways seems unsettled besides people’s excitement over the dribs and drabs of modern gadgetry that come their way. The stones tell stories, but ones that cannot hope to be heard over the roar of motorcycles and satellites.

At the family home, a version of the beloved Chinese story Journey to the West, about the monk Xuanzang’s trip to India that has been transformed into a fantastical myth, is playing on the television set. Sitting around the Losar table, an older relative commands the young monk to tuck into the heaping plates of meat and confections in front of him, but the boy is hypnotized by the video. He also goes to visit the rehearsal of a traditional Tibetan opera, but seems perplexed what happens onstage, having a harder time engaging with the real people acting than the surreal images he has seen on the television screen. He stands there wearing a monkey mask, one that poses bemusement, blankness, uncomprehension. When the play is eventually staged, he and his friends borrow money to watch the screening of a violent Hong Kong film in a small, darkened room. They get so offended by what they see that they immediately leave, asking for their money back. Meanwhile they aren’t missing much, as the play has been interrupted by a drunkard.

The boy convinces his father to bring the television back to the monastery so that he can continue watching that one video on repeat. This goes on all through the night, with people dropping by periodically to get mesmerized along with him. All the while the old lama has been preparing for a much more grueling pilgrimage to Lhasa, to be done prostrating himself. With the prospect of joining his master on the journey, the young monk is looking ahead at assuming the role of squire into the unknown. The trip would spell a transformation into maturity for him, and for the lama, a final act of dedicated piety.

The time comes for his father to return, and he hoists the television back into his pony’s saddle bag. The boy dons his mask again, a strangely maudlin face above the dignified, scarlet robes, and watches as the father and the pony disappear over a hill. The disc is still in the television and he is left holding its casing, images from the video probably somersaulting through his mind.

Still from 'The Silent Holy Stones'

The Silent Holy Stones (2005)

The visage of the monkey king is recalled by the boy’s mask, invoking a character who, in the central myth, acts as Xuanzang’s guide, an animal force with abilities simultaneously human and superhuman, like Hanuman in the Ramayana. There is an interesting and multi-leveled cultural imitation going on here; he is willingly assuming a role that is perhaps a representation of non-Chinese people, and he is doing so with a costume that is taken from the local production being staged in his home village. The myth that he is replaying also finds a curious and indirect sort of reanimation when applied to his world; the accomplishments of a Buddhist monk, kept continually alive in a place that for so many years denied religion of any sort, takes on an even more heroic aspect among the few people who are able to hold onto Buddhism (though far removed from that of Xuanzang) in the modern state.

2011’s Old Dog is a much grimmer, grimier, and lower-budget affair, shot on video, and quite dissimilar to the color depth and plump light that mark the earlier film’s quaintly assured cinematography. Like in Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011), ominously present sounds upbraid the viewer, not unlike the unrelenting sun of the Tibetan Plateau. In this story, it is something more fundamental to the people of Amdo, a time-worn connection with nature (the domesticated dog being a point of exchange between it and them), that is being quite forcibly wrenched away. An elderly sheep herder named Akhu, living in the hills outside of a small frontier town in Qinghai, is doing everything within his power to keep his Tibetan mastiff, a dog integral to the lives of traditional nomads but which is now in high demand as a pet among China’s businessmen. Along with his daughter-in-law, Rikso, Akhu sits quietly by day watching television as the dog tends to the flock. They live in a small, traditional home with a wood stove and grass growing from the roof, surrounded by silent pastures. But by night the old man is roused by strange noises, possibly men trying to steal the dog from him. The dog will fetch quite a bit of money, but the old man isn’t interested in giving up on tradition at his age, even if it will help out the young couple who live under his roof.

At the start of the film the old man’s son, Gonpo, sells the dog to a Chinese man in town called Lao Wang. Upon finding out about this, Akhu tries to take the dog back, and winds up enlisting the help of a police officer, the husband of Rikso’s sister. Things continue on according to this model, with fate continually coming between the old man and his dog, until he eventually does the Buddhist thing and sets it free on a mountain. When it winds up back in Lao Wang’s hands, destined for the marketplace, he hurries to take it back again. But by the time he is even aware of what has happened, Gonpo has assaulted the dog dealer and been taken into police custody.

The subplot of Gonpo and Rikso trying to conceive a child isn’t necessarily connected to the old man’s continuing struggle to keep his scruffy companion, but it provides a parallel narrative of people having to face modernity. They feel pressure from Akhu to bear children and continue the family line. When that isn’t going so well, they are compelled to tramp through the mud and plain-text billboards that characterize the nondescript town, seeking a modern clinic that will help them. They still respect the father’s opinions, but seem somehow relieved by their visit to the doctors, as giving the matter a traditional approach would undoubtedly protract it for months or even years. Instead, they get the finality of test results.

Still from 'Old Dog'

Old Dog (2011)

Here things feel far less equivocal than in The Silent Holy Stones. This is more of a fable, pitting the more basic things that people hold onto – in this case the usefulness of the dog to the old man’s livelihood – against modern tendencies that are beyond the comprehension of the people in it. Akhu cannot possibly imagine what rich people in China could want with a mangy dog like his; after all, they have no flocks to look after. Gonpo must be similarly mystified by this, but he finds himself influenced by the monetary element. His needs are more concrete, and his thinking is more rational. While he doesn’t necessarily want to see the dog sold off, he also doesn’t want it to get stolen, and the family wind up with nothing. Tseden has said that the film, even within a year of its completion, had already found its place as a distant time capsule; the nonprofessional lead who does a stolidly tragic turn as the old man had passed away, the mastiff had passed away at age 30, and the house in the film had been bulldozed for a concrete replacement.

Old Dog represents a confluence of bucolic quiet and sensory brutality, both of which come through in the film’s stylistic austerity. The mirroring undercurrent beneath all this, of course, is its lack of sentimentality. The old man doesn’t romanticize or humanize the dog at all (it doesn’t even have a name, it’s just called “dog”), nor does he do that to the pastoral culture that is getting slowly pulled out from under him. Very little indicates that he loves the dog itself. Repeated appeals from his son and from the would-be thieves tell him that the dog will have a better life away from the countryside. But nothing, and no amount of money (at one point they offer him ¥20,000 for it) will make him budge. The preconceptions of the audience are perhaps more sentimental than the film itself, which clearly isn’t meant merely as another document that trumpets the loss of a fast-evolving culture. If anything, it shows us the deep and ingrained role that an ancient way of life can inhabit, something that is the opposite of malleable, and which will always put it at odds with the changes of the modern world.

Both films hinge upon the transformation of culture to commodity. While elements of a culture being commodities, or somehow inseparable from commerce, is not a new phenomenon at all (and, in spite of that, they always exist on a distinct plane, housing tradition while also being tied to commerce), this nonetheless provides a timely backdrop for the ways in which the Chinese occupation of Tibet has changed over the last decade or so. Like in The Silent Holy Stones, Tseden focuses on the more remote tremors of cultural imperialism in a very gentle, ground-level manner, looking at pervasive but far from aggressive ways that Tibetan culture is being lost, undermined, or forgotten. It is a time of confusion, of obscurity, after generations have been born within Tibet as Chinese citizens. The kingdom of Tibet has taken more than its share of aggression over the last fifty years (after dishing it out for most of its history) but alterations also get planted in less visible, but no less insidious, ways.

There is a strong ambivalence throughout both films, and one not born of an essentialist dichotomy of positive and negative. Because things happen subtly, mysteriously, bathed in the slipstream of cultural push and pull, with modern technophilia getting swathed in the robes of ancestral practices, it becomes impossible to discern where the modern changes begin and where tradition ends, and what occurs without consent. The notion that they are losing their culture to conform more to foreign ways probably rarely occurs to most people when they put a VCD into their machine. The Silent Holy Stones in particular resists such evaluations, which is mainly what makes it so powerful; it sets up two contrasting yardsticks of where Tibetan people are situated culturally, two differing types of measurement, and leaves it to the audience to conclude what the correlations between them are.

Tseden has said that The Journey to the West is a story that he, like probably the majority of people in China, enjoys very much, and wanted to incorporate it as a spiritual inspiration for the monk’s undertaking of the journey to Lhasa. While it is a Chinese story, emerging from deep down in the nation’s consciousness, the production we see in the film, played back endlessly, is a Tibetan-language program from the early 1980s. Xuanzang, whose name seems to change depending on what culture is representing him, is here referred to as Tenzin Lama. Tseden doesn’t treat the story as something imposed upon the people – they watch it voluntarily, rapt – or, if it is, pliable enough to be readily adapted and assimilated in the minds of the people viewing it.

Still from 'Old Dog'

Old Dog (2011)

In a film that doesn’t make statements so much as placidly open-ended observations, this is perhaps The Silent Holy Stones‘ most profound conclusion: that outside cultural influences become more paradoxically more salient the more subtle and alluring they are, and that decay can be equally difficult to recognize until it is beyond remedy. This isn’t meant to underline peoples’ passivity – quite the opposite, they are participants in it, sometimes willing, sometimes stubborn, sometimes everything in between. There is plenty of violence in China’s presence in Tibet today, but culturally speaking, the government recognizes the value of a less overt repression. People tend to incorporate cultural artifacts (and, by extension, cultural values) more wholly than any wall-to-wall propaganda could hope to achieve, and, in the final analysis, the unevenness of this can make the effects not easily traceable.

In the lives of Tibetans, evidence of Chinese culture comes in these odd and out-of-context spurts, as it only could in a place that had been rather the definition of remote insularity long before it was isolated by the strong arm of imperialism. The elderly Akhu responds to the aggressiveness of the modern world with a countervailing degree of sturdiness that seems a dying characteristic of Tibetan people. It seems strange at first, but he relies upon the local police force for help, as they are much less representative of the state than the capitalistic dog-rustlers who threaten him. In the earlier film, cultural insularity is represented in an extreme of the lifestyle of the monks. The boys refer to the video as a “play” (the nearest analogue they have in their lives) and we can practically see them internalizing cultural knowledge as they watch it – the awe splayed across their faces spelling a blank canvas whose tranquility masks how voraciously they assimilate the images.

While variously touching and heartrending, each of these two films, in very different ways, show elements of life particular to Tibet’s current situation. They don’t angrily trumpet against all of the ways China has transformed the place and the people, because the filmmaker recognizes that, for everyone involved, things are always more complex and indefinable. Outside influence can’t always be categorized as good or bad, and people don’t always give up on their heritage when tempted by convenience or bright lights. The presence of something huge, powerful, and sinister is represented by very innocuous things, but ones that are nonetheless quite meaningful to the characters. While there is no way for them to see the structural implications, they are still left with the responsibility of adapting themselves and navigating the mixing cultural sea that surrounds them, which sometimes resembles more an expanding oil slick.

Whether Western audiences simply aren’t interested enough in modern Tibet to give films such as those of Tseden much recognition, or if there are political roadblocks that keep them from being better known, either way we lose out. It could also partly be due to a lack of Tibetan filmmakers altogether, and even fewer realist works dealing with their life within China. Sonthar Gyal (who also served as cinematographer on Old Dog and 2009’s The Search, both directed by Tseden) made The Sun-Beaten Path (2011), which has seen a bit of coverage on the international scene, but which may well slip into obscurity like Tseden’s debut. The films that Tseden has made thus far celebrate some of the unique qualities of Tibetan cultures and, at the same time, interrogate the cultural assimilation that surrounds them, examining through the dust those two aspects of life as they grapple together toward an indistinct horizon.

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