Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pema Tseden

(The 2014 Punto de Vista International Seminar in Pamplona, Spain, which began today, includes a retrospective of the formidable Tibetan director Pema Tseden.  Below is a 3500-word essay on Tseden, titled "The Spiritual and the Mundane," which I wrote for the festival's program book.)

Pema Tseden’s misfortune is that he will likely be pigeonholed for the foreseeable future as the most important Tibetan filmmaker; whereas he required only a few films to establish himself as one of the best and most confident filmmakers anywhere in the world. His first feature, The Silent Holy Stones (2005), presents all the elements of Tseden’s style in mature form: a weighty compositional sense that combines spectacular depiction of landscape and a precise deployment of his human subjects; the use of strongly conceptual material in which the central concept is overstated and reiterated, both for comedy and as a distancing effect; a humorous use of repeated actions and fixity of behavior; a figural approach to performance that renders the difference between actors and non-actors immaterial; and a pessimistic vision of the frailty of spiritual values in the face of worldly desire. 2009’s The Search follows The Silent Holy Stones in its focus on the role of fiction and storytelling in our lives, but the later film veers away from conventional narrative and adopts an abstract, cyclical structure that seems at once primitive and experimental. After this feint toward the boundaries of narrative, Tseden’s most recent film, Old Dog (2011), unexpectedly applies his approach and concerns to an elemental drama that, through the dogged, minimalist cadences of Tseden’s story construction and the grandeur of his compositions, acquires the force of mythology.

Tseden’s first film, the twenty-two-minute short The Grassland (2004), is primarily valuable for the light that it sheds on the filmmaker’s attitudes toward religion and moral redemption. A parable- like story of a chieftain named Tsedruk (Anam) journeying to another community with the far more forgiving elderly woman Ama Tsomo (Ama Lhardo) to track down the thieves who took her sacred yak, The Grassland is easy to relate to Tseden’s later works, which also anchor their visual plans in stunning images of Tibetan mountainscapes, and make frequent use of cutaways to images not related to plot. Yet, even on the stylistic level, Tseden has not quite found his voice in The Grassland. The images of landscape, generally shot from low camera angles and with longer lenses than Tseden would later use, seem less designed around the foreground figures and therefore more illustrative; sweeping tracking shots seem a bit grandiose for their lack of motivation; the editing is noticeably more jagged and less precisely timed than in the later films. Even Tseden’s use of cutaways seems more conventional, typified by shots of birds and landscape interpolated into sequences of prayers and ceremonies. (By contrast, cutaways in Stones to landscape shots are used primarily to elide scenes of characters watching television, and take on a reflexive aspect; whereas cutaways in Old Dog to elements outside the narrative, like a goat watching a paper lantern blow down the street or a solitary toddler on the sidewalk, create unresolved mystery.)

The purity of the theme of The Grassland drives Tseden’s spiritual orientation out into the open. The grim Tsedruk is possessed less by a desire for vengeance than by a moralistic fixity and a refusal to be taken advantage of. The opposition between Tsedruk and Ama Tsomo is expressed repeatedly and ritualistically: Tsedruk says “I’m not a pushover,” “I don’t need anyone telling me anything”; Ama Tsomo urges Tsedruk “Let it go – let’s turn back,” “We will be blaming innocent people.” A cappella traditional Tibetan songs on the soundtrack and elements of Buddhist ritual – interludes of chanted prayer, and the ceremony in which the accused thieves proclaim their innocence – punctuate the movie at regular intervals and give it a ceremonial rhythm. The story pivots – without much dramatic emphasis, as if the outcome is foretold – on the mysterious change of heart of the thief, Juga (Drolma Kyab, who also plays the son Gonpo in Old Dog), the village leader’s son who has heretofore escaped suspicion. As Juga leaves his father’s home to confess the crime and return the yak, a Buddhist prayer swells on the soundtrack: “May all beings be endowed with happiness and its causes/May all beings be free of suffering and its causes.”

Tseden’s concern with issues of conscience and inner spiritual movement continues through his career (though he has not expressed it so directly after The Grassland) and suggests an affinity to the work of the Dardenne brothers. Yet, though Tseden’s notion of the spiritual in conflict with the worldly is expressed with more comedy than the Dardennes have ever attempted, it is a darker vision, in which the spiritual impulse seems overmatched in its struggle with our mundane nature. The Silent Holy Stones, Tseden’s most comic work, could be seen as a Tolstoy-like indictment of the power of art – in this case storytelling, particularly as it is embodied in television serials – to rob people of their higher aspirations. The protagonist, “the Little Lama” (Luosang Danpei), a student monk at a Buddhist monastery, is shown, within minutes of his introduction, taking a covert interest in the monastery’s TV and deceiving his Aka (the monk who instructs him) about his motives. The siren call of television is heard by all, even by the Aka and the young Tulku, a reincarnate Lama who eagerly compares notes with the Little Lama on their entertainment options. When the Little Lama’s father introduces him to a trashy TV action show based on the culturally approved legend of Tansen Lama and the Monkey King, the Little Lama’s fascination with entertainment begins to tip over into obsession, and he exploits the nominally Buddhist subject matter of the show to transform the monastery briefly into a multi-venue screening facility, all the while wearing a Monkey King mask at every possible opportunity. The boy’s rebellion against authority when he is inevitably separated from the Tansen Lama VCDs is muted, but registers clearly through the stare of Tseden’s impassive camera and through the Little Lama’s erratic movements within the careful compositions. (Here as elsewhere, Tseden’s use of gestures and stage directions to convey emotions physically makes it possible for him to employ unprofessional actors without handicap.) Ending on a Monlam ceremony conducted by the monks who were glued to the TV a few hours earlier, the film further tips its pessimism with the symbolic character of the Little Lama’s uncle Zoba, a hermit who carves mani, the holy stones of the title, and who dies alone in mid- story before the stone he made for the Little Lama could be delivered.

The Search plays down the moralist themes of Stones, but they reappear with a vengeance in Old Dog, a clear-eyed, nearly Bressonian vision of evil consuming the world. The (real-life) craze among mainland Chinese bosses for Tibetan mastiffs has driven up the price of the dogs and created a semi-criminal trade on the Tibetan plateau, with shady dealers eager to buy or steal the few remaining mastiffs among the rural nomads. The old sheep farmer Drakpa (Lochey) refuses to part with his mastiff at any price, and goes to great pains to reclaim the animal when his shiftless son Gonpo (Drolma Kyab) sells it on the sly. Generational decline is a motif: the henchman of the dog dealers is the son of a late, great nomad hunter. The avarice of modern culture even reaches into Drakpa’s home in the form of television, as the old man and his family passively endure an endless, hysterical, hectoring, static-filled jewelry infomercial that makes the cheap action heroics on display in The Silent Holy Stones look contemplative by comparison. A small moral victory – Gonpo eventually realizes on which side he stands, and is jailed for his retaliation against a dealer – does not dispel Drakpa’s growing awareness that he and his way of life are doomed. First the old man sets the dog free; when that strategy fails, he kills the animal with his own hands, a thunderstorm gathering as he walks away from the site of the deed. The nomad’s terrible victory is a kind of suicide.

This grim account of the film’s themes does not convey how funny all three of the features are. (The Grassland’s lack of comedy is another reason that it feels like an apprentice work.) Tseden’s sense of humor is generally expressed as exaggeration of or excessive emphasis on the central concept of the project. By establishing his organizing concepts immediately, then overstating them via repetition, he turns the conceptual overload into a kind of shared joke with the viewer. In The Silent Holy Stones and The Search, where the central concept is storytelling and fiction itself, Tseden pushes the built-in self-referential aspect of the material through the roof by circulating the same stories through different media, as well as the same reactions through different characters. In Stones, the traditional story of Drime Kunden (which will become the Holy Grail of the search in The Search), first seen on TV in the monastery, is staged live in the Little Lama’s home town when he returns for a visit, giving Tseden ample opportunity to riff on the way fiction is received and used. Rehearsals of the Drime Kunden play are public events that are subject to frequent interruption, with the child actors in the piece playing ball in front of the stage when not on it. The actual performance is not much more formal: when the Little Lama interrupts the show to ask his actor brother to lend him money, he is rebuffed – “Can’t you see I’m acting?” – until the audience intervenes on the boy’s behalf, laughingly evoking Drime Kunden’s legend of self-sacrifice: “Give them some money – Drime Kunden, be kind.” The youthful cast modifies the production of the traditional play, concluding it with a boom box and loud dance music that drives away the otherwise engaged elderly attendees. In an ominous development mimicking the larger movement of the culture, a nearby ramshackle theater showing a Hong Kong action film causes some of the younger audience members, and even one child actor, to desert the play.

In The Search, a director (Manla Kyab) and his film crew drive across rural Tibet, looking for actors from local theater troupes to play Drime Kunden and his wife Mande Zangmo. Even before plot is introduced, stories within stories sprout and multiply, beginning with the Scheherazade-like tale of lost love told in installments in the car by the group’s business partner (Tsondrey). The film crew encounters a promising young actor and actress who introduce a new layer of drama into the film: A Je Drobe (Lumo Tso), the actress who plays Mande Zangmo, insists on accompanying the film crew as they make the long trip to find Kathub Tashi (Kathub Tashi), the actor who plays Drime Kunden and who was once A Je Drobe’s lover. On the trip, the businessman’s story, frequently revised due to memory gaps, is stage-managed and critiqued by the director, who spaces out the story for maximum entertainment value, or admonishes the businessman: “When you tell it, try to mention only what is relevant.” The impassive A Je Drobe, sitting in the back seat with her face covered, appears indifferent to the sad story but always remembers the exact point where it was interrupted. Gradually the expedition to find and audition indigenous performers turns the movie into a floating talent show, filled with interviews and performances that have little apparent connection to the film crew’s stated mission. At film’s end, Tseden allows himself to make explicit the absurdism that lurks beneath his reflexivity, and undercuts the authority of the director whose vision has driven the plot. “Don’t believe him. Who could ever make so many films?” says the businessman to the last of many performers to whom the director has promised film projects of their own.

The more dramatic and straightforward story of Old Dog relocates Tseden’s humor and conceptual play into the realm of structure and form, with powerful results. From the film’s first shot, a reverse-track two-shot of Gonpo and the mastiff on their way to town, Tseden’s visual presentation of the material is overtly thematized: each shot an illustration of an idea, and many shots an illustration of the same idea. (Drolly, Tseden fades to the “Old Dog” title card after we have stared at the old dog for a sufficient time.) The dog’s axiomatic role in the opening sequence is highlighted when Gonpo takes a break from his mission to play pool with some locals on an outdoor billiard table, and Tseden cuts to an overhead shot of the pool game, with the composition carefully selected to include the dog frisking about while tied to a nearby post. As the story develops, Tseden chooses at nearly every point to underline its repetitive aspects instead of minimizing them. Discussing his unauthorized sale of the dog, Gonpo predicts his father’s angry reaction, and when the confrontation occurs it plays out exactly as foretold; Tseden then cuts to a reverse tracking shot of Drakpa riding his donkey into town to annul Gonpo’s transaction, evoking the similar earlier shot of Gonpo’s journey. Later, when Drakpa all but forces the reluctant Gonpo and his wife Rikso (Tamdrin Tso) to visit a doctor to investigate the couple’s childlessness, Tseden mines deadpan humor from the lengthy and unproductive visit by using the same composition of Drakpa sitting in the doorway, watching Gonpo and Rikso’s motorcycle in the distance, for both the couple’s departure and their return. The emblematic mastiff, who can be seen nosing around in the background of this shot, functions in the film like an obtrusive and comical version of the earrings in Madame de…, and Tseden loses few opportunities to make room for the shambling animal in his compositions: the funniest result of this persistent signification is the unexpected shot of the dog jumping out of the police van and back into his familiar yard after Drakpa freed the dog in the mountains.

Tseden’s visual style, largely consistent through his three features, nonetheless adapts to the films’ subtly different conceptions. The Silent Holy Stones establishes Tseden’s baseline visual approach, with its reliance on deep-focus, pictorial long shots of people and terrain, often deriving droll humor from our distant visual perspective on the characters’ reactions. On the infrequent occasions when Tseden abandons master shots and resorts to conventional editing patterns, it is generally to emphasize dramatically important moments: for instance, when Kathub Tashi hears that A Je Drobe has journeyed to find him in The Search, or when Gonpo stares at the mastiffs caged in a truck (presumably the moment of the character’s change of heart) in Old Dog. The emphasis added by these more traditional edits is sometimes exploited for humor, especially in Stones, where cuts to medium closeups of the impassive Little Lama give us no additional information, even before the boy begins wearing his Monkey King mask continuously. Tseden’s wittiest joke about cinematic conventions occurs in The Search, when the film crew’s camera operator is shown zooming in on Kathub Tashi at a dramatic moment, while Tseden’s own camera, for which a zoom is unimaginable, maintains its deadpan detachment.

The Search’s cerebral concept, and its wispy narrative that is driven less by story than by the announced desires of the director within the movie, push Tseden to an artier visual approach that sometimes seems to mimic primitive cinema techniques. As a rule the long-shot frame in The Search is fixed, with characters entering and exiting it as if it were a proscenium, sometimes with their comings and goings announced in advance; in the car sequences, the camera tends to stare out the windshield, with complicated actions orchestrated to give us only partial views. The talent auditions that are staged for the film crew are filmed in blank long shots that do nothing to help the performers put across their songs or recitations; as the film proceeds, the same frame is increasingly used for multiple auditions, with performers stepping one at a time into center frame. At times the obduracy of the frame creates strange and extreme effects: in one scene, the film crew’s guide enters and exits a building multiple times to fulfill the director’s requests, with the camera waiting outside the building with the director during each foray; in another, a lengthy interview with a villager proclaimed as “a real Drime Kunden” is conducted from a fixed camera position behind the villager, whose face is never seen.

The sometimes offputting primitivism of Tseden’s camera in The Search gradually creates a sense that the world through which the film moves, and the seemingly unlimited supply of creative talent that springs unbidden from the landscape of the Tibetan plateau, are the film’s true frame of reference, with the narrative relegated to little more than a winking pretext. Near film’s end, Tseden crystallizes his priorities in an astonishing two-and-a-half-minute take that deprecates the narrative even more ruthlessly than the last shot of Antonioni’s The Passenger - so much so that it’s possible to see The Search multiple times without even realizing that the climax of the story is occurring. In the yard of the school where Kathub Tashi teaches, Tseden stages a folk dance on a vast scale, with several large circles of student dancers arrayed from near the foreground of the shot to the extreme background, all moving to the sound of music broadcast throughout the space by mounted speakers in the yard, so that the music is partly obscured by distance, echo and chatter. On the right side of this magical vista, far away from the camera, the long-awaited meeting between A Je Drobe and Kathub Tashi finally occurs, midwifed by the film crew; one at a time, both the young people exit frame right, giving even the most focused viewer no more than a bare sense that the reunion did not result in a romantic clinch and a happy ending.

Old Dog moves Tseden to a more classical integration of visual style and drama. The director’s knack for finding a visual balance between foreground figures and background vistas, combined with the mystery built into the elemental plot, gives a symbolic weight to the characters: the strong, silent Drakpa and the prodigal son Gonpo would nearly be at home as mythic figures in a Western. Tseden tells the story of Old Dog with a visual clarity that borders on comic exaggeration: typically, a scene in which a character walks out of a static frame with a clear announcement of his or her destination is followed by an instant cut to the destination. This mimicry of simple cinematic forms sometimes resembles low humor – as when Drakpa’s demand that Gonpo undergo a medical exam is cut together with the shot of Drakpa on his front steps watching Gonpo drive to town – and sometimes is stylized into Kaurismaki-like absurdism – as when Tseden cuts between Rikso’s clinic visit and repeated shots of Gonpo on his motorcycle, watching the minimal activity on the village’s main drag as he waits for his wife. Tseden occasionally treats himself to visual experiments in Old Dog, but these ideas tend to hew closely to story – like the somewhat Wellesian shot in which Rikso and her sister Shamtso (Pema Kyid) give Gonpo the results of the clinic visit, photographed with the conversing characters reflected in a shop window, so that each of the women is shown directly only when she is not participating in the discussion.

What is surprising about Old Dog, and what augurs so well for Tseden’s filmmaking future, is that he easily converts to dramatic purposes the same elements that he exploits for humor. The shambling mastiff and the obdurate Drakpa accumulate tragic stature through repetition and symbolism – and if these qualities are the basis of Tseden’s visual jokes, they are associated at the same time with the growing sense of a world out of joint. As the film’s climax approaches, Tseden’s visual plan is increasingly keyed to long shots of the old man and old dog out in the fields, with the sound of the dog’s panting used to track its distance from the camera; the predatory dog dealers sometimes invade the pasture and sometimes motivate the action despite their absence, but the mood of the idyllic setting is always inflected by the existence of evil in the world. The film’s most stunning effect occurs after the young henchman appears at Drakpa’s pasture with his thuggish, silent boss to make a sizable cash offer for the dog, which Drakpa rejects as unhesitatingly he did all other offers. After the dealers leave, Drakpa pauses for a moment’s reflection – during which, we later learn, the dog’s fate is sealed – and then leads the dog into the background of a vast landscape shot. During the more than three minutes of the shot’s duration, the sheep swirl around the shepherd and his dog, slowly falling into formation with them and following them into the mountains. A lone straggler sheep, unable to reach the herd because of a fence, makes repeated efforts to jump the fence wire, coming closer and closer to the camera; finally the straggler turns away from us, finds a gap under the fence and follows its brethren, the old man, and the dog toward the composition’s vanishing point.

No comments: