Paths of the Soul
Since its premiere on June 20, 2017, Paths of the Soul, a movie set in Tibet, has taken on a dark horse role en route to becoming a stunning blockbuster in the Chinese film market. It grossed over 100 million yuan in two months, a rarity for movies with no commercial elements such as visual effects and a dramatic plot.
Shot in 2014, the movie was directed by Zhang Yang, a famous sixth-generation director in China, who spent nearly a year shooting two movies prominently featuring Tibet.
Paths of the Soul recounts the story of 11 villagers in eastern Tibet making a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash (also known as Kang Rinpoche), one of the four sacred mountains of Tibetan Buddhism, to hon- or the birthday of Sakyamuni, founder of the religion.
The other film is Soul on the String, an adaptation of a fantasy fiction novel by Tibetan writer Tashi Dawa. Since its release on August 18, the film has performed impressively in theaters and reaped rewards at the box office.
Both films are squarely about Tibetans, totally different from anything Zhang has ever done before. From the original attraction of Tibetan mystery to the abundance of the region’s symbolism, Zhang Yang shot the movies with a focus on local Tibetan daily life to pay tribute to the inhabitants on the roof of the world and reignite interest throughout China and the world through his understanding of the region.
Movie vs. Daily Life
For most people, Tibet is a mysterious but alluring tract of land. In 1991, when he was still a curious young student, Zhang Yang ventured to Tibet. “In those days, the road conditions were poor and going anywhere was inconvenient,” Zhang recalled. “It took many days just to get there. Also, there weren’t as many hotels and guesthouses as today.”
After graduating from the Central Academy of Drama in 1992, Zhang found the opportunity to shoot documentary films for a year on any topic he wanted. He chose places inhabited by Tibetan people, including Qinghai and southern Gansu provinces. His experiences there were quite different this time: “I was no longer just a curious kid.”
Since late 1990s, Zhang has directed and appeared in more than a dozen films including Spicy Love Soup (1997), Shower (1999), Spring Subway (2002), and Going Home (2007), which he also wrote. Many of his films have won domestic and international awards, including China’s Golden Rooster Award, and have been selected for the San Sebastian International Film Festival, which has led to commercial releases.
Tibetan elements often appear in his films. For example, Shower includes scenes of Tibetan people bathing in Namtso, the second-largest lake in Tibet. “I knew that one day I will go to Tibet to film—it was just a matter of time,” Zhang grinned.
His chance came in 2014 with the arrival of the zodiac year of birth of the sacred mountain of Kang Rinpoche.
Zhang revealed in the production notes that “there was no script,” and “nothing was known.” Paths of the Soul was filmed in a simple documentary style. “I consider myself devoted to making good movies, so I immersed myself in the pilgrims’ lives,” Zhang said. “By spending a year in the real setting, sharing every moment with them, day and night, I could accurately capture the characters and stories happening all around me.”
Zhang Yang eventually focused his camera on an 11-member group making the journey: a pregnant woman, an elderly man with strong hopes for his afterlife, a teenager going through puberty, and a couple and their daughter suffering from changes in their lives. The group set off on a 2,500-kilometer pilgrimage for reasons ranging from birth and death, growth and transformation.
“The only way to be part of their lives was to interact with them all day long,” Zhang asserted. “It was a path to de-mystifying Tibet in a movie.”
For a long time, the world’s general understanding of Tibet has been limited.
The unique geography and climate of the Qinghai-tibet Plateau have created a relatively closed living environment that has preserved the traditional lifestyle of the Tibetan people.
In the 1990s and earlier, Tibet was less accessible. People had to learn about the place primarily through works of art such as literature and film.
Thanks to increasingly improved transportation infrastructure, Tibet has seen a rapid development in tourism, which has become a pillar industry for its local economy. In the first half of 2017, Tibet welcomed over 8.6 million tourists who
spent nearly 10 billion yuan there.
Tibet is no longer so mysterious after so many Chinese films featuring it have hit the big screen. Movies such as The Silent Holy Stones (2006), The Knot (2007), and Kora (2011) were honored in film festivals in China and abroad, including the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Tokyo International Film Festival, by showcasing how people on the roof of the world live and work.
The Tibetan movie boom couldn’t have happened without impressive efforts from Tibetan movie talent such as scriptwriters Alai and Tashi Dawa, and directors Pema Tseten and Sumtai Gya, who have broadened perspectives of Tibetan filmmakers.
They describe people’s lives with their own language, which helps the world better understand the region and serves as a good reference,” said Zhang.
“What ordinary people in Tibet want is all the same,” declared Alai, a well-known Tibetan writer. “They care about things like nice houses, telephones, televisions, tap water, education, health care, retirement security, and good teachers working in Tibet’s rural areas.”
This view of Tibet is not shrouded in mystery.
A still from Red River Valley (1996), which recounts a love story between a Han and Tibetan. courtesy of Xinhua New Agency
A still from another Tibetan-themed movie, The Knot (2007). IC
A poster for Qinghai Hoh Xil (2004), a story about protecting Tibetan antelopes and the ecology in Hoh Xil.
Released in 2011, Kora follows adventurers biking along the highways of Yunnan Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region. IC