Nothing Like a Pretty Girl to Energize the Quiet LifeWednesday, May 16th, 2012
Travelers and Magicians” is a pleasant, colorful travelogue directed by the Bhutanese lama KhyentseNorbu, whose 1999 feature, “The Cup,” made the rounds of the world’s film festivals. Where “The Cup” was the “Going My Way” of Buddhism, humanizing the earnest young monks and stern elders of a Buddhist retreat by portraying their goofy, adolescent enthusiasm for soccer, “Travelers and Magicians” takes an opposite approach. It is the secular humanist Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), a petty government official assigned to a remote village in the tiny Himalayan kingdom, who learns to suspect his affection for all things Western and regain a respect for traditional Buddhist ways.
The long-haired Dondup, who wears high-tech athletic shoes and T-shirts that proclaim “I Heart New York,” has long dreamed of escaping the sleepy village – where the main form of entertainment is archery contests among the middle-aged locals – and making his way to America. As depicted in the posters hanging on the wall of his sun-filled hut, America is a land of hip-hop, scantily clad young women and imposing consumer goods, all of which will be within Dondup’s reach once he finds a way of securing a visa.
When a letter arrives suggesting that his papers may be waiting for him in Thimphu, the capital city, he departs in a great flurry of Westernized energy and anxiety, only to be frustrated at every turn. After missing the one weekly bus to the big city, Dondup is forced to hitchhike along lonely mountain roads, where he is joined first by a humble, nearly silent apple farmer, then by a musically inclined, outgoing monk (Sonam Kinga), and finally by an elderly rice-paper maker and his disarmingly beautiful teenage daughter (Sonam Lhamo).
While the group trudges through some stunning mountain scenery, the monk tries to coax Dondup out of his faith in an American dreamland by relating the tale of an apprentice magician (played in the story-within-the-story by Lhakpa Dorji) whose urge to escape from his village led him to disaster. The magician is lured by fate to a remote estate where an old man lives with a sexy young wife (Deki Yangzom). The paradigm shifts to “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (or perhaps more directly to Zhang Yimou’s unofficial “Postman” remake, “Ju Dou”), as the young people begin plotting against the repressive elder.
Mr. Norbu forces parallels between the two stories, though they don’t seem to have that much in common. Just as in the monk’s story the young magician is learning that it is better to resist temptation, Dondup, in the framing story, is becoming more and more fixated on his teenage traveling companion. Dondup isn’t won back to the ways of tradition and wisdom by the monk’s tale, but by the girl’s radiant innocence and eternal smile.
As he did in “The Cup,” Mr. Norbu provides a lot of ingratiating comic moments. His Buddhism is the laughing, playful kind, and does not ask the Western audience – for whom the film is clearly intended – to deal with any uncomfortably complex religious issues. The most conspicuous dreamland in the film is not Dondup’s fantasy of America, but the happy, childlike land of Bhutan, shown as a paradise without poverty or need, presided over by wise old men and inhabited by fresh-faced young women. Is this Bhutan or the Playboy mansion?
‘Travelers and Magicians’
Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Written (in Dzongkha, with English subtitles) and directed by Khyentse Norbu; director of photography, Alan Kozlowski; edited by John Scott and Lisa-Anne Morris; produced by Raymond Steiner and Malcolm Watson; released by Zeitgeist Films. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 108 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Tshewang Dendup (Dondup), Sonam Lhamo (Sonam), Lhakpa Dorji (Tashi), Deki Yangzom (Deki) and Sonam Kinga (the Monk).