Bhutan monk’s film opens to mark Buddha’s birthdayHis favorite actors are Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins and his favorite actresses are Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Lopez. He likes listening to Billie Holiday and Muddy Waters, though he says, “Lately I am into techno too.” His films have taken prizes at festivals from Busan to Amiens. He also happens to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist nonsectarian saint of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism.
He’s Khyentse Norbu, the first Bhutanese filmmaker in history, and he’s one of the world’s most surprising Buddhist gurus. His second film, “Travellers & Magicians,” opens in Seoul with English and Korean subtitles at the Film Forum near Jongno 2(i)-ga Thursday, in honor of Buddha’s Birthday, which this year falls on May 5. It’s one of a handful of films to be made entirely in Bhutan with dialogue in the native Dzongkha tongue.
In the film, a local government official longing to get to America named Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) meets a monk (Sonam Kinga) on the road to the Bhutanese capital Thimphu. Dondup, anxious to get to his “dreamland,” misses his bus and is stuck hitching the two-day journey with the monk and a few other travellers. To pass the time, the monk tells Dondup a cautionary tale about an apprentice magician who falls under a spell and ends up trapped at an isolated house with an old woodcutter and his young wife.
“Be careful with dreamlands,” the monk warns. “When you wake up, it might be unpleasant.”
Much more sophisticated and varied in settings and narrative than Norbu’s previous film “The Cup,” about soccer-obsessed monks in northern India, “Travellers & Magicians” expertly captures the stunning natural beauty of the filmmaker’s mountainous homeland.
On top of its storytelling, the film also has value for its cultural preservation of the traditions of rural Bhutan. A Bhutanese archery tournament opens the film. A housewarming ceremony involves women and men in a boisterous tug of war, with the middle of the rope tied around a wooden phallus. And, of course, the monk’s constant plucking of his dramyin, a traditional Bhutanese lute, is the film’s most distinctive sound.
But this is a light-hearted parable, not a documentary or a dry Buddhist sermon. “[Khyentse Norbu] is a monk, but he’s not the stereotypical monk,” says Myungsun Pack, head of Pan Cinema, the company that will distribute “Travellers & Magicians” in Korea. “He’s very wise and learned, but at the same time he’s a bit of a prankster.”
Born in 1961, he was recognized at age 7 as the reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, a 19th-century Tibetan mystic who learned from over 100 masters and wrote 35 books while practicing at Dzongsar Monastery in eastern Tibet. Jamyang Khyentse broke boundaries, seeing validity in all different Buddhist traditions. His open-minded perspective became known as rime.
Perhaps a little of this open-mindedness has rubbed off on Khyentse Norbu, who calls film just another cup through which the tea of the dharma can be sipped.
Inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu and Satyajit Ray, Norbu sought film education at the New York Film Academy, eventually working for Bernardo Bertolucci on “Little Buddha.” Both his films were made with the help of Thai and Australian professionals and production houses, but Norbu says he tries to hire as many native Bhutanese as he can, so as to build up the country’s film industry.
Ms. Pack says “Travellers & Magicians” will run in Seoul at the Film Forum for three weeks or longer, depending on the audience, before a possible tour in Busan, Daegu and the provinces. “Big multiplexes like CGV and Megabox just use smaller films to fill in gaps between big releases,” she says. “If [a film] doesn’t do well they’ll immediately bring it down, even in the middle of the day, sometimes.”
“Smaller distributors are following the trend of showing a film just on one screen or two screens for a longer run, so word of mouth has time to build up an audience.”
Pan Cinema expects “Travellers & Magicians” to appeal to a niche market, “Buddhists or people interested in Buddhism,” but its gentle characterizations, rich culture, beautiful photography and philosophical story make it a universal folk parable.
by Ben Applegate