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Zeitgeist Films

Official Site

Director: Khyentse Norbu

Producers: Raymond Steiner, Malcolm Watson

Written by: Khyentse Norbu

Cast: Tshewang Dendup, Sonam Lhamo, Lhakpa Dorji, Deki Yangzom, Sonam Kinga


Okay, quick—think of your favorite writer/director/Himalayan Buddhist monk of the last half-decade. Got it? Well, dollars to dharma you’re picturing Khyentse Norbu. (Or Richard Gere, in which case, stop it.)

Norbu, who was brought up in monasteries in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and calls Bernardo Bertolucci, (for whom he worked on 1993’s Little Buddha,) “almost like my film guru,” enjoyed international success at Cannes with his 1999 feature debut Phorpa (The Cup), which he wrote and directed. The film tells the lighthearted story of World Cup fever at a monastery, and employed a cast composed almost entirely of Butanese monks. Norbu’s back now—and he’s still keeping it in the family.

His second feature, Travellers And Magicians, is a mystical and sweeping tale of love, longing, and choice, made all the more mystical and sweeping by its sumptuous setting. Bhutan’s natural resources, from mountain range to ingénue, are on full display in what is a simple, lovely, if somewhat familiar-looking story. The actors, again, are almost without exception untrained Bhutanese newcomers, but do not seem uncomfortable in the least. The camerawork is a bit deliberate at times, but solid. The cinematography is effortlessly stunning. This isn’t the flashiest or most daring movie out there—there are no flying daggers or soaring wire-stunts in this one to salve the short-attention-spanned, but it is a movie in earnest, and those are hard to come by.

Norbu’s visually enchanting homeland provides an enveloping cradle for the stories of two men, both dissatisfied with their lives, both primed for escape. Dondup (Dendup), a young government officer in the small village of Khumbar, has a seemingly peaceful and secure life and a respected position among his fellow townspeople. He is interminably bored, however, and imagines something vastly different for himself: a life of opportunity, wealth and excitement in America. When a long-awaited letter from a stateside friend presents the window he needs, he bolts through it, and soon finds himself making his way across the countryside with rather mismatched group—a spirited and particularly canny monk, an apple peddler, and an old paper-maker and his lovely daughter. As the journey becomes long, the monk offers a story to entertain his companions—and perhaps counsel a particularly impetuous dreamer among them. (Enter wistful Bhutanese boy #2.) The monk proceeds to weave the (cautionary?) tale of Tashi (Dorji), a dispassionate, girl-chasing student of magic, likewise restless for adventure and change. Though a trick of his more astute younger brother Karma, Tashi is whisked away to a world that is an uncertain blend of fantasy and reality, where he finds himself at the center of a swirling cloud of sex, betrayal, deception, murder, and generally more than he bargained for. And that’s when things really start to pick up.

This film is good—very good, actually: sensitive, engaging, quirkily funny in parts, capably directed and acted (the peskily perceptive monk steals the show.) Couple these with the understanding that the driving creative force behind the story and the whole of the cast are, by industry standards, positively sopping behind the ears, and the film becomes doubly impressive. Add to this the knowledge that Travellers marks only the second international picture to come out of the entire country, and it becomes a landmark. Viewed outside of these contexts, though, as it undoubtedly will be by many, it remains a well-done version of a story that’s been told a few times. The stories of Dondup and Tashi are compelling, but familiar. Even the magical realism bits have come to be expected, though there is an especially effective (and eerie) moment toward the end of Tashi’s story. Overall, Travellers is certainly worth seeing, but once or twice may be enough. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the film is that it signals the further development of a rather bold “young” voice. In his sophomore wide-release effort, Khyentse Norbu has dealt earnestly with the deepest matters of the heart, crafted at least one very memorable character, significantly advanced the Bhutanese film movement he helped to conceive, and even squeezed a few belly laughs into a very big-hearted, perceptively human film.

—Brian Villalobos

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