I didn't find out about the Tibet in Harlem series until today, its opening day. One of the titles in the program, Pema Tsaden's Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng (The Search), made an impression on me at last year's Toronto Film Festival. In my Toronto 2009 wrap-up for Senses of Cinema, I wrote:
"Screened at Locarno after winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Shanghai Film Festival, Pema Tseden's Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng (The Search) is allegedly the first Tibetan film made openly in China. Structured around a film crew's search for rural performers for an adaptation of a traditional Tibetan opera, Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng is actually an elaborate riff on the theme of performance, stringing together stories within the story and impromptu auditions, and exploring various dryly comic ways to interrupt, contextualize, or serialize them. Tseden's remote visual plan, keyed to the expansive terrain and hanging back at important moments, is gradually revealed as a important component of his mission to restore the uncanny aspect of performance by subtracting its direct appeal to the audience. (In the film's climactic scene, we see that the film crew's cameraman has a more conventional dramatic sense than Tseden, slowly zooming in on the singer that the film crew has been pursuing, while Tseden's camera remains stubbornly locked-down.) By the time the search reaches its conclusion, song and theater seem to be springing unbidden from the Tibetan landscape. The print of Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng that screened in Toronto contained awkwardly translated English subtitles that improved after fifteen minutes or so, but made it difficult to perceive the film's formal and verbal intelligence."
Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng shows at Maysles Cinema (at 343 Lenox Ave., two blocks away from the 125th St. stop on the 2/3 trains) on Saturday, March 20 at 7:30 pm. I haven't seen the other films in the series, but two other Tseden films are included: his 2005 feature Lhing vjags kyi ma ni rdo vbum (The Silent Holy Stones) on Wednesday, March 17 at 7:30 pm; and his 2004 short The Grassland, as part of a program on Friday, March 19 at 7:30 pm. Kevin Lee (who will be doing a Q&A with Tseden after the Wednesday screening) compares Tseden to Abbas Kiarostami, and I can see the connection: both filmmakers hide a droll, cerebral formalism behind naturalistic surfaces.