Paths of the Soul

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Chen Lili

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.”

New Un­der­stand­ing

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

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