FILM IN TIBET
According to the Chinese government in 2005: Seeing films is one of the main cultural activities of the broad masses of people in agricultural and pastoral areas. Tibet now has 436 cinemas, 650 grassroots film projection teams and more than 9,300 projection centers, showing more than 130,000 movies to 28.5 million people annually, averaging at least one show per farmer or herdsman per month. Films are dubbed in Tibetan in agricultural and pastoral areas so that farmers and herdsmen can understand them. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 26, 2005]
In recent years several Tibetan language films made by Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal. Dung (2010) is a film by Lance, a Tibetan herdsman from Qinghai Province.
Gyatso Gentsu is an ethnic Tibetan professor of art based in southwest China’s Sichuan province. According to China File: His animated short “The Hunter and the Skeleton” uses eye-popping flash animation inspired by traditionalthangka paintings of Buddhist deities to tell the subtly subversive story based on a folk myth of a hunter’s encounter with a fearsome skeleton monster. [Source: Shelly Kraicer, China File, January 17, 2013]
Pema Tseden is a widely acclaimed Tibetan film maker and the first director ever to film a movie entirely in Tibetan on the ground in China. Tseden is known for films that strive to depict the stark reality of modern life for Tibetans bypassing the exoticism and mysticism that characterize of many portrayals of Tibet. “Filmmakers are starting to more accurately capture the essence of life in Tibet,” he told The New York Times. “They are starting to let go of the old stereotypes.
Bruce Hume wrote in his blog: Pema Tseden is arguably China’s poster-boy Tibetan filmmaker. The son of nomads, he went on to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy and shoot "Silent Holy Stones" (2005), the first-ever feature film in the Tibetan language and using an all-Tibetan cast and crew. He followed this up with The Search (2009), which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Shanghai International Film Festival. [Source: bruce-humes.com, May 2012]
“I think Tibet has always been mythologized and worshipped, and made more remote,” Pema Tseden said in an interview with NPR. “People’s psychological expectations and experiences of Tibet are stuck in the past. They don’t understand the new Tibet.” But he faces considerable obstacles in telling his story about the “new Tibet.” According to the NPR report, his second film The Search “was vetted by the State Administration of Film, Radio and Television, as well as by the Religious Affairs Bureau and the United Front Work Department, which manages relations with ethnic minority groups in China.” Nor does he necessarily relish his role as the China-based director who has brought Tibetan film to the world’s attention. Silent Holy Stones won a Golden Rooster, a major Chinese award, in 2005 — the year the PRC celebrated 100 years of film.”Lots of people asked me if I felt it was a very glorious and proud moment. But I felt very sad that it’s taken 100 years to have a Tibetan film. I’m not proud; I think it’s a matter of great sorrow,” he told NPR.
Christopher Bell wrote on indiewire.com: Tseden is a director with plenty to say on all topics, ranging from the younger generation's lack of connection to their heritage to the troubling relationship between Tibet and China. All is told in a subtle way, with a minimal plot and quiet, patient long takes — which is also another way of saying that his modus operandi isn’t likely to please everyone, but for those that admire the work of filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, another remarkable talent has emerged. With his strong sense of visual composition and a dedication to presenting the real Tibet, it's only a matter of time before Cannes starts lapping his films up. Already a prolific novelist in his native country, Tseden took up the camera in 2002, producing a number of features in the neo-realist vein and jump-starting the Tibetan independent scene with cinematographer Sonthar Gyal. "Old Dog" is his latest effort, a quiet affair depicting one family's struggle to keep their elderly family pooch from being stolen at a time when its breed fetches a high price. Though the plot reads like something thinly conceived, it's actually a cleverly devised story, rich in allegory and social critiques with very little fat on its bones. After showing "Old Dog" in both China and Tibet, audience members responded well, praising the accurate representation of the region. [Source: Christopher Bell, .indiewire.com, June 9, 2012]
On his influences, Tseden told Christopher Bell: "I studied at the film academy in China for many years and I watched hundreds of movies, so it’s hard to say who really influenced me. But I will say, Ingmar Bergman is probably one of them who really struck me."
Pema Tseden on the Aims of His Films
On his films, Pema Tseden told Christopher Bell: I tried to show people the traditional way of life and the social change taking place. For instance, in this film, there’s a story inside a story — that young couple couldn’t have a child. Through that kind of situation I'm trying to tell people what is current in Tibet. Things are changing," Tseden noted. "The main point of the film is not just to tell a story, but also to demonstrate or document small details that make up Tibet." [Source: Christopher Bell, .indiewire.com, June 9, 2012]
On his use of bleak landscapes in “Old Dog” to give the film a kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland feel, Tseden said: "I intentionally created that kind of impact, but based on the story and the needs of the story,” confessing that he was "kind of depressed" during the writing and shooting stages of the movie. "Maybe you noticed that many scenes in the movie don’t contain a lot of sky — the shots were framed very level, or horizontal. We wanted to create a very sad feeling through this. When you watch the movie, and the dog is killed, in many ways it’s kind of a liberation. The dog is liberated in a way, and the old man is too. At the end, he climbs a hill, which has some symbolic meaning, because at the end of it it is closer to the sky."
Explaining how a memorable scene from “Old Dog” — in which an entire flock of sheep run across the back of the frame while an isolated one attempts to return to its group — came about, Tseden said: "90 percent of compositions are pre-meditated, pre-planned. We intentionally separated the one sheep from the group and set up a camera to see what would happen, but we didn’t know it would walk down toward the camera. That was great, and then something even more miraculous happened. When the old man walked back with the dog, the entire sheep herd followed him. That is a very interesting part, and we didn’t expect that to happen! But it happened really naturally, they merged, and it went with the feeling of the movie." Tseden often takes advantage of the digital format by shooting scenes numerous times, but he was so pleased with this outcome that he moved on after a single attempt. "It was very natural... we had the perfect one," he declared confidently.
One a new movie titled "America," Tseden said: "It's about a Western cow, not the traditional one found in Tibet. This time the story would take place in Central Tibet. One family purchased a very expensive cow from a foreign country because they were told that it would produce a lot of milk. They're unsure what to name it, and since they know there are a lot of these in America, that’s what they name it. When they attempt to breed it, it inexplicably dies, leading to an investigation from the security department. Because of this chain of events, the relationships between people in this particular tight-knit village change, which is the main point I'm going for. It's structurally different from 'Old Dog,' and the movie will start when the cow is already dead, with people giving their individual stories to the security department."
'Pema Tseden’s Films
Balloon (Qi qiu) is a 2019 film written and directed by Pema Tseden and starring Sonam Wangmo, Jinpa and Yangshik Tso. According to IMDb it is about a family that struggles against the conflicting dictates of nature, spirituality, politics, and free will. Marko Stojiljković wrote in Asian Film Pulse: “Balloon” is kinda connected to his previous works, especially with “Tharlo” (2015) and his previous award-winning Venice title “Jinpa” (2018), at least through his “house actor” Jinpa and the topics revolving around Buddhist religion, mysticism and philosophy. However, “Balloon” has another, quite this-worldly, realistic layer to it: the examination of One-child Policy from a distinctly Tibetan point of view. The film, like its predecessor, premiered at the Orizzonti competition of the 76th edition of Venice Film Festival. [Source: Marko Stojiljković, Asian Film Pulse, September 6, 2019]
The story follows a family living alone on the vast plateau surrounded by their prized sheep. It consists of an ailing grandfather (Konchok), a father named Dargye (Jinpa), a mother Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo) and their two mischievous sons who have found two of the last condoms in their parents’ stash and use them like balloons for playing with each other. The time period is not specified, but it can either be in the 80s or 90s, which means that One-child Policy was still very dominant and brutally enforced even by lenient doctors. With Dargye’s libido, Drolkar’s inability to say no to him and Tibetan religious and ethnological traditions (mainly, the belief in reincarnation of the deceased relatives in the small family circle), but also the shortages of material goods like condoms contradicted by the strictness of the state family planning policy, the problems are about to occur and to hit the family quite hard.
Time Out Shanghai describes Pema Tseden’s “The Search” (2009) as “A visual poem, as well as a bittersweet song of cultural identity.” The review says: “”The Search” unfolds at two levels: the classical codes of cinematic representation, and issues pertaining to the national (an ambiguous term, if any, for Tibetans born in the Chinese province of Qinghai) Pema’s immense talent, however, prevents “The Search” from being yet another film about trying-to-make-a-film; with subtle humor, melancholic accuracy, and impeccable dignity, it opens a too-rare vista into what moves and ails the Tibetan men of his generation.”
In a review of Tharlo (2015), Wendy Ide wrote in The Guardian: Tibet, a country that finds itself at a crossroads between tradition and modernity, the rudimentary rural existence and the temptations of the city, is the subject as well as the backdrop of this strikingly beautiful fable. Tharlo, a goatherd, can still recite the huge indigestible chunks of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book that he learned as a nine-year-old. A simple man, he is not sure of his own age and lives by the black-and-white moral code of a child. When he is sent to the city to get an ID card, a chain of events is set in motion. The use of sound is particularly effective. In the city, Tharlo is buffeted by layers of noise; at home on the steppes, he listens to wispy fragments of folk songs on his radio, ghostly voices from the past. Shot in monochrome, using long, meditative takes and locked shots, this is a film that requires investment on the part of the viewer. It repays the effort – it’s a rich allegory for a nation torn between past and future. [Source: Wendy Ide, The Guardian, October 2, 2016]
In a review of Jinpa (2018), Panos Kotzathanasis wrote in Asian Film Pulse: Tseden directs a much more approachable film that lingers between the road movie and the western, before it concludes in complete deliriousness. The story takes place in Kekexili, a secluded area in Tibet which is considered the largest and highest plateau in the world. The protagonist, Jinpa, is a truck driver dressed like a rock star, who listens to classical music in his car as he carries his cargo across the barren roads of the area. Two occurrences, however, completely change his fate. The first one takes place when he hits a stray sheep on the road, killing it and eventually taking it with him, and the second when he picks up a young man who is hitching a ride, also named Jinpa. The young man reveals that he is out to kill a man who wronged him in the past, before the first Jinpa drops him off at a junction. [Source: Panos Kotzathanasis, Asian Film Pulse, February 13, 2019]
‘Beyond the Skies’ is an award-winning art house war film set during the Chinese civil war whose executive producer is Pema Tseden . It won three laurels at the Beijing International Film Festival last year, including Best Feature Film and Best Cinematography. The directorial debut of Chinese Academy of Art professor Liú Zhìh, it is a black-and-white war film that is evocative of Chinese ink wash painting. It premiered in 2021 at the Shanghai International Film Festival, then won three Tiantan awards in Beijing before moving on to other festivals in Kyoto and Okinawa." The film received some great reviews. "But at home, few have heard about and ever fewer have watched this film. [Source: Amarsanaa Battulga, SupChina August 12, 2022]
'Old Dog' , Film by Pema Tseden’s
Old Dog ( 2011) is set in Tibet and is about the conflict between commerce and emotion, with the country’s burgeoning trade industry for mastiff dogs the backdrop. It captured the Grand Prize at the Tokyo Filmex in late 2011,Samantha Culp, writer, curator and produce, wrote in RADII: : It’s a Shakespeare-level, ancient mythological allegory, in the form of an everyday, semi-rural, developing landscape. It’s a tale that feels as epic as Beowulf, but rendered in small-town contemporary, grimy, third- or fourth-tier city Tibet, and the connection between animals and humans is both very real, and intimate and direct, and also operates operates on these deep mythological levels. It’s such a stunning political critique packaged in such a simple story, that it just blew my mind. It’s heartbreaking on a human and animal, visceral level. [Source: RADII]
Nicola Davidson wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Old Dog” “is a story centred on an aged Tibetan Mastiff. The creature has caused a rift between a father who dresses in Tibetan Garb and rides a horse to town, and a son, an alcoholic who rides a motorbike. The son sells the mastiff to a dog dealer, but his father retrieves it and sets it free in the mountains — only to find the dog once again in the hands of the dog dealer. In the end, the father takes drastic action to liberate his long-time companion.
Christopher Bell wrote on indiewire.com: Pema Tseden’s “Old Dog” doesn’t include any of the flourishing beauty of “Seven Years in Tibet,” instead opting to showcase a dismal, despairing area where the cities look like post-apocalyptic wastelands and the countrysides don’t seem to contain a speck of life. While his outlook on things is unrelentingly critical, he’s not being negative for the sake of it — there’s some true passion behind this work. [Source: Christopher Bell, .indiewire.com, June 9, 2012]
Things begin with a young man touring the city on his motorcycle, dog in tow. This is Gonpo, and he hopes to get some scratch by selling his old family canine — with all the recent pooch snatching, he figures he could beat the thieves to the punch and at least make some money out of it. Unfortunately, the Chinese buyer he meets doesn’t offer the right price, so the unkempt looking man recruits his cousin (also a police officer) to help negotiate a better price. He manages to seal the deal, returning to his rural home without the mastiff mutt but with a hefty chunk of change instead. But no amount of money would please Akhu, Gonpo’s elderly father, who berates him for selling the dog. Add it to the list of issues he has with his kin: Gonpo is lazy, unmotivated, and has been married for years but is still without the pitter-patter of little feet. Akhu returns to the town and, after enlisting the same badge-wielding relative (what a helpful guy), he manages to retrieve the hound. Unfortunately this is just the start of their problems with the mastiff, and to add icing to the cake, the married couple soon discover why they’ve been having so much trouble conceiving.
Though the story is generally banal and plot developments are few and far between, what is there is quite rich from both an emotional standpoint and an allegorical one. Much of the former admittedly has to do with the sole fact that the narrative is based around man’s best friend — it’d be difficult not to connect with this lovable pet, especially considering he’s shipped back and forth like some material possession — but Tseden knows the difference between legitimate warmth and manipulative tear-jerking. Instead of pressing in for dramatic impact, he tends to stay static, and from a distance — the results cause one to feel as if they’re living there, in the moment. Though the characters are reticent, we can feel their presence, their bonds, their life.
Pema Tseden Detained and Hospitalized After Airport Incident
In June 2016, Pema Tseden was hospitalized after was detained by the police at the airport in the northwestern city of Xining after blying from Beijing. The New York Times reported: During his detention, Mr. Tseden “displayed health problems” that required hospitalization on Monday, the guild said in a statement. “Sonam, a producer who works with Mr. Tseden, said that security officers had used force in detaining the director but did not think that he was beaten in custody. “They grabbed him by the hair, handcuffed him behind his back and dragged him to the station,” he said. [Source: Austin Ramzy, New York Times, June 29, 2016]
“Mr. Tseden had returned to the baggage claim area to retrieve a forgotten bag when he was confronted by airport employees, who said he should not have re-entered, said Mr. Sonam, who like some Tibetans uses one name. The staff called the police, who later ordered Mr. Tseden to serve five days of administrative detention for disturbing public order.
“The Xining airport police said in a statement that Mr. Tseden was detained because he had refused repeated orders to leave the baggage claim area. However, Mr. Sonam said that the director had tried to leave once he realized he could not take his bag, but was blocked. The police said that, because of “his refusal to cooperate” when taken from the baggage claim area, he had three cuts from handcuffs digging into his skin. In detention, Mr. Tseden experienced high blood sugar, high blood pressure, headaches and chest pain that required he be sent to a hospital on Monday, Mr. Sonam said.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2022