A Tibetan filmmaker focuses on life in his hometown, reports.
Tharlo is Pema Tseden’s fifth feature film, yet is his first to be screened in movie theaters for what is technically known as a theatrical release.
The reason is simple: Pema Tseden makes personal films with no car chases, explosions or special effects. They are all stories he knows intimately about people in the Tibetan area of Northwest China’s Qinghai province, where he grew up.
The characters speak mostly Tibetan, and the new film is even presented in stark black and white, with the rich texture of a quality photography album.
There is nothing touristy in Tharlo or Pema Tseden’s other movies. The Potala Palace makes only a cameo appearance as the backdrop in a photography store, together with Beijing’s Tian’anmen Rostrum and New York’s Statue of Liberty.
The only characters donning traditional Tibetan garb are a pair of walk-on roles in that photo lab, and they are soon asked to change into Western suits to fit the backdrop of a New York skyline.
One is tempted to read various meanings into such details.
But the Tibetans in Pema Tseden’s lens live ordinary lives. Actually, the male lead carries on a life of monotony as a shepherd in the mountains, punctuated only by the howls of wolves. He tends to hundreds of sheep, some of which are placed in his care by a customer.
When Tharlo, the protagonist, is sent to the county town to take a photo for a new ID, the proprietor of the photo lab is not amused by his disheveled hair. He is sent across the street for a hair wash and it ends in a fateful encounter with the beautiful and scheming hairdresser who eventually runs away with his life saving of 160,000 yuan ($23,500).
Although he does not seem to be an educated man, Tharlo ponders big, philosophical questions: Is he a good man or a bad one? Will he die with the weight of a mountain or the weightlessness of a feather?
The audience may ask these questions of the femme fatale, but one gets enough room — and time — to direct one’s thinking in any way one wants.
The title character is played by Shide Nyima, a master comedian locally known as “Tibet’s answer to Zhao Benshan”.
In the movie, he strips every comedic trace and imparts an air of authenticity as a weather-beaten single man, who suffers not so much from poverty as from work-related hardships such as loneliness. One wonderswhatkind of transformation he would go through in the face of urbanization.
Yangshik Tso plays the mystery woman whose seduction of Tharlo we hope would include a modicum of tenderness. In the hair-cutting scene reminiscent of Samson and Dalila, she conveys the complexities of her inner world, possibly her moral conflicts, with nothing but facial expressions.
Though it has Pema Tseden’s trademark glacial pacing and static shots, Tharlo embodies fascinating details in both its visual compositions and its sound design. The singing alone by various characters suggests an era of fast changes and cultural fusion, with folk songs, rap and other music styles sharing space on the soundtrack.
“This movie is about ethnic Tibetans, but I hope people of all ethnicities can relate to it because I believe it can transcend racial and geographical boundaries,” says Pema Tseden, a graduate of the famous Beijing Film Academy.
Pema Tseden started making movies in 2002. He is also the writer of the scripts of all his movies, many of which are adapted from his own novels and short stories.
Last year, Tharlo entered the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival and was nominated in six categories at theGoldenHorseAwards held in Taiwan, winning best screenplay for Pema Tseden.
It opens on the mainland on Friday.
Jia Zhangke, a forerunner in China’s art-house cinema, said at the movie’s premiere on Dec 5: “I won’t feel lonely with Pema Tseden and his work as we continue on the journey of giving voice to the same age and the same country.”
Contact the writer at raymondzhou@ chinadaily.com.cn
Tharlo, starring Shide Nyima, reveals a weather-beaten man’s loneliness in the face of transformation.