Pema Tseden and the Emergence of Tibetan Cinema
The Search (dir. Pema Tseden)
In the Tibetan news and culture website Phayul, filmmaker and writer Tenzig Sonam published a lengthy assessment of the films by Pema Tseden (Wanma Caidan), possibly the most in-depth overview of the Tibetan filmmaker’s work to date.
Tenzig Sonam writes on The Search:
A road movie, the film follows a director and his team as they drive around the Amdo highlands looking for actors to play the lead roles in a cinematic adaptation of the much-loved Tibetan opera, Drime Kunden. This Buddhist story of the compassionate king, Drime Kunden, who sacrifices everything, including his wife and children, and finally even his eyes, for the benefit of others, had already made its appearance in The Silent Holy Stones… The Search is an elegiac journey through a changing Tibet, one where fewer and fewer people know how to sing the arias from Drime Kunden, one where the inroads of modernisation are everywhere palpable. But the film is also a meditation on the Buddhist idea of spiritual sacrifice as opposed to the more fleeting pleasures of earthly love. It is clear that the director in the film is drawn to the example ofDrime Kunden’s sacrifice. But by the end of the film, he is no longer certain about the meaning of this sacrifice. On more than one occasion, the question arises about what choice, if any, the sacrificed – the wife and children – had in Drime Kunden’s grand gesture of compassion.
On Old Dog:
Pema Tseden’s Old Dog was different to anything he had made before. It had a definite narrative arc, a dramatic dénouement, and a clear message. It was also angrier than his earlier films and there was a palpable sense of frustration and pain. For the first time, the sense I had in his earlier films that the more resilient aspects of Tibetan culture could still somehow make up for what was being lost, was now replaced by something bordering on futility.
And on the future of Tibetan cinema:
As it evolves, Tibetan cinema will certainly face fresh challenges. New policies, such as the relocation of nomads, restrictions on religious practice in monasteries, and the insistence on political re-education campaigns continue to breed resentment and unhappiness among Tibetans with Chinese rule. The ongoing unrest in many parts of Tibet and the increasing use of force and repression by the Chinese authorities to contain it leaves no Tibetan unaffected. In this growing climate of fear and oppression, can the wilful erasure of any Chinese presence from Tibetan films continue? As we have seen from Pema Tseden’s Old Dog, the pressure to address directly, in some form or another, the nature of China’s relationship with Tibet will only grow. How will Tibetan filmmakers negotiate the dilemma that doing this will entail? Finding the balance between taking this difficult step while maintaining the precious space that Tibet’s emerging cinema has clawed out for itself may well be the next phase in the evolution of Tibetan cinema.