Wind (随风飘散, Dadren Wanggyal, 2020)

“Who made these rules?” an exasperated young woman asks, fed up with her constant stigmatisation for something that was in any case not her fault. Set in a small Tibetan village, Dadren Wanggyal’s Wind (随风飘散, suífēng piāosàn) takes aim at entrenched misogyny while suggesting that the traditional patriarchal social codes by which the village operates have caused nothing but misery not only for women but for their men too who all too often turn to drink and violence in order to escape their own sense of imprisonment. 

Only the wise old grandmother seems to know better. She is the only one to show kindness to Samdan (Sonam Wangmo), a young woman she discovers in her barn who has given birth to a child out of wedlock. Seven years later, Samdan and her daughter live in a small home on the outskirts of the village but are regarded as social pariahs shunned by the local women and often described as filthy witches in part because Samdan has had to resort to offering sexual favours to local men in exchange for food and assistance. Meanwhile, the old lady continues to support them sending her son Gonbo (Genden Phuntsok) to supply the pair with meat yet Gonbo is careful never to venture inside while his wife, Urgyen Tso (Wondrok Tso), remains intensely disapproving. Gonbo soon has a son, Tsering, who is sickly leading Urgyen Tso to blame Samdan and her daughter Gelak (Tsering Drolma) for his poor health. Seven years on from that, Samdan’s 14-year-old daughter becomes a surrogate sister to Gonbo’s son who is bullied by the other children because he is small and weak but is constantly misunderstood by the judgemental village society.

Both Gelak and Tsering are in various ways made to pay for their parents’ transgressions. It isn’t Gelak’s fault that she was born to a mother who was not married, though she is the one called “witch” and seemingly blamed for anything that might go wrong throughout the local area. Neither is it her fault that her mother has little other option than accept gifts from lecherous men in order to support them both in the absence of a husband in this wickedly patriarchal society. Tsering meanwhile becomes the victim of his mother’s unhappy marriage, knowing that Gonbo has someone else in his heart that he was forced to give up because a marriage was already arranged for him. It is really his moral cowardice which has led to all the subsequent problems in that he should not have begun a relationship he was not prepared to fight for nor agreed to marry another woman out of a sense of obligation and then gone on to resent her for it. For these reasons, Urgyen Tso has become a jealous woman and most of all for her sickly son while seemingly unaware of how he is treated by the other boys in the village. Gelak is the only one who stands up for him, stepping in to challenge the bullies and later carrying him home when he is seriously injured by one of their pranks yet is constantly blamed for making him ill despite Tsering’s assertions that she is not responsible and in fact helped him.   

In any case, it’s this sense of rejection and futility that eventually push Gelak towards a desire to take charge of her own destiny. The wise old lady had told her that her only option was to find a husband to care for herself and her mother, yet Gelak has had enough of unreliable men and chooses an opposing path. Using the loom the old lady had given her, she resolves to earn a living for herself ordering her mother never to accept a gift from any of the local men ever again while taking on all of the duties the man of the household would usually perform. That would include taking part in the ritual at the Holy Mountain on behalf of her family, somewhere that a woman would ordinarily not be allowed to go. Breaking with tradition she takes the men to task, asking who exactly made these rules and why while challenging the village’s essential misogyny to claim her full autonomy and right to head her own household in the absence of a man. 

Chastened they do not stop her, though as for what happens after that the answer may not be so easy. Interestingly enough, the protagonist of the story on which the film was based, The Bastard Child Gelak, was a boy, yet Gelak’s determination to claim her right to equality and liberate her mother from years of stigmatisation presents an existential challenge to the outdated social codes of the village in which women are forced to bear the brunt of male failure without recourse or remedy. Elegantly lensed amid the dramatic scenery of a Tibetan mountain village, Dadren Wanggyal’s impassioned drama paints an animated portrait of contemporary Tibetan life while arguing passionately for long-awaited social change. 


Wind streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Song for You (他与罗耶戴尔, Dukar Tserang, 2020)

A resentful musician is confronted with the corrupting influences of modernity while trying to make it as a singer in the directorial debut from Dukar Tserang, A Song For You (他与罗耶戴尔, tā yǔ luó ye dài’ ěr) . Guided by the goddess of music, Ngawang travels from his home in the desert to the city and then still further while holding fast to the purity of his traditional art but perhaps begins to discover that evolution is not always betrayal while learning a little something from those he meets along the way even if his elliptical journey ends in its own kind of tragedy. 

The son of a prominent musician in his home community, Ngawang (Damtin Tserang) longs to prove himself as a singer but is also rigid and uncompromising, getting into a fight with a friend of a friend who mocks him for stubbornly playing his traditional Zhanian zither when others have long since moved on to mandolin. Lhagyal sings the praises of popular musician Samdrup who seems to be something of a sore point to Ngawang, kickstarting a rant in which he accuses him of corrupting the art of Amdo singing with his modern evolutions such as drum machines and electronic backing. Lhagyal meanwhile argues that Samdrup has in fact saved their art and without his innovations no one would be at all interested in folk singing to begin with. The two men butt heads, but it’s Ngawang who ends up looking like a prig especially after he fails to place in the singing competition in which he’s come to perform after having arrogantly boasted of his talent. 

It’s at the concert that he first lays eyes on a mysterious woman, another singer singing of the birth of Amdo music. Ngawang later comes to believe she is some kind of incarnation of the goddess of music, Loyiter, owing to the similarity she bears to an icon revealed once he accidentally breaks open a talisman his father had given him after having a tantrum that it clearly doesn’t work because he didn’t win the competition. The nameless woman advises that the reason Ngawang’s talent was not appreciated was because no one takes you seriously if you don’t have an album which is why he ropes in his feckless friend Pathar to help him get to Xining where it seems records are made.

It’s in the cities where he begins to feel his most severe pangs of culture shock, taken to a bar where he again spots the mysterious woman but this time she’s a rock singer named Yangchen who again begins helping him meet the right people to further his musical ambitions. The contrast between his songs which sing of the beauty of the natural world, and the highly corporatised, technologically advanced world of the music business couldn’t be more stark. Ngawang could not understand the words of Yangchen’s song even though he appreciated the melody because it was in Mandarin, while the design shop he uses for a poster ends up making an embarrassing typo in the Tibetan script which they are unable to read. Ngawang just wants to sing, but finds himself roped in to making a “video album” with an over zealous director who accuses him of having no presence and a lack of expression that make him unfilmable as a performer. 

In any case, it isn’t just in the cities that modernity has begun to seep into the traditional. Stopping off on their road trip to deliver the sister of a man who ambushed them and then gave them a brief musical lesson to a monastery, Ngawang encounters a little boy begging in the street who seems to be homeless and alone. Noting the oversize Zhanian on his back he asks the boy for a song, which he sings in a melancholy rendition of life’s unfairness that some children have wealthy parents, some poor, and some none at all. Ngawang is embarrassed to realise he only has large notes, but the boy cheerfully pulls out a lanyard with a QR code Ngawang could have scanned to pay him via WeChat if only he had his phone. Throughout his wanderings Ngawang comes to a new understanding of the world around him which softens his rigidity while informing his music with a greater sense of openness even as he fails to notice a note of foreshadowing in Yangchen’s troubles only later realising he’s been away from home too long and there is always a price to be paid even if you serve the goddess of music. A light hearted musical odyssey and brief tour of the Tibetan plains, Dukar Tserang’s soulful road movie is an ode to singing for the love of it but also to openness and friendships, no matter how brief, made along the way. 


A Song for You screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Balloon (气球 / དབུགས་ལྒང་, Pema Tseden, 2019)

Balloon poster“The world has changed but you’re still so conservative”, a bemused doctor exclaims on learning that a female patient would rather wait around for a woman doctor than disclose a “woman’s problem” to a man. Set in ’80s Tibet, Pema Tseden’s seventh feature, Balloon (气球, Qìqiú / དབུགས་ལྒང་), finds itself at the intersection of multiple worlds and changing times as a small family is quietly torn apart by societal forces beyond its control.

As the film opens, the family’s two youngest sons are busy spying on dad and grandad through the fuzziness of an overinflated balloon. Only, unbeknownst to them, it isn’t a balloon at all but a condom, a slightly embarrassing harbinger of modernity now necessitated by the recently instituted One Child Policy. With the oldest boy away at high school, Dargye (Jinpa) and his wife Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo) have three kids already and paying the fine on a fourth would more or less mean financial ruin. Thankfully, the condoms are free – the only problem being that Drolkar has to go to the clinic in town to ask for them which she finds extremely embarrassing, so much so that she can’t even bear to say the word, almost winking as she whispers “the free things” before quickly stuffing them in her pocket. 

What Drolkar wanted to ask the doctor about, however, was the possibility of sterilisation. With the kids constantly nicking the condoms along with the chance that they aren’t 100% reliable, she is in constant worry of what it might mean for the family if she becomes pregnant with a fourth child, especially, she tells the doctor, because Dargye seems to be in a particularly amorous mood at the moment which increases the chances of something going “wrong”. The female doctor can’t quite understand Drolkar’s prudery, or her slightly “old-fashioned” way of thinking. The doctor, obviously, enjoyed a university education. She has a career of her own and a clearly defined individual life as something other than a wife and mother. She wonders why anyone would want to have so many children in this day and age. Having only one means she can devote all of her resources in one direction, ensuring her child can have a good education and the best start in life, whereas Dargye has just had to sell a cow to pay for his eldest’s school fees while the second two stay home.

For Drolkar, who was perfectly happy with the way things were, the world is still an intensely patriarchal place and even if she wanted to (which she doesn’t, really), it’s probably too late to become anything other than a wife to her husband and mother to her sons. This her sister Ani (Yangshik Tso) learned to her cost. Venturing pick up her nephew Jamyang from school she ends up running into an old flame who apparently ruined her life though some kind of “misunderstanding” which led to her leaving home to become a nun. Now a divorced teacher and apparently rising literary star, he hands her a book inspired by their love affair which he hopes might help to explain whatever it was that happened between them, but Drolkar, still outraged on her sister’s behalf, prevents her from reading it – firstly by throwing it on the fire causing Ani to get her fingers burned (again, but literally) pulling it out, and then by telling Ani’s ex to take the book back and refrain from causing any more trouble dragging up the past.

Yet as much as she’s Dargye’s wife Drolkar tries to assert her authority in other ways aside from taking control of her sister’s romantic future. More practical than her husband, it’s she who is in charge of the condoms, and she who worries about the potential effects of a problematic pregnancy on their family. In a society as patriarchal as this, some might say that such things are in any case a woman’s responsibility, but Drolkar’s belief that bearing a child or not is her own decision eventually places her at odds with her husband who becomes temporarily violent when faced with his impotence, powerless to prevent his wife aborting their baby if that’s what she decides, but also at the mercy of the Chinese state who have arbitrarily decided that something as natural as conceiving a child is now a crime.

For Dargye and his family who live traditional lives far from the urban centres of the modern state, it isn’t only the pain and sadness of being forced to abort their child against their will which burdens them but a spiritual taboo in knowing that the child whose birth they’d be denying may be the reincarnated soul of a much loved relative. Drolkar is forced to choose between her Buddhist beliefs and the demands of Chinese communism, her husband’s wishes and those of the state acting as father. Of course she tries to choose her family, but whichever decision she makes may destroy it either through her husband’s resentment or the costs involved with trying to defy the political reality.

Grandad laments that everyone rides motorbikes these days, you never see horses anymore. Times have indeed changed, but in some ways more than others. While Dargye seems to draw vicarious power from the randy ram he’s borrowed from his friend to stud his sheep, a figure of robust and virile masculinity, he’s effectively neutered by the society in which he lives. Conversely, Drolkar, according to the doctor at least, ought to feel herself liberated but is left with no real choice at all. Only the kids, cheerfully playing with the instruments of their parents’ oppression, have learned to find innocent joy in the midst of such uncertainty while the modern world creeps in all around them.


Balloon was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Jinpa (撞死了一只羊, Pema Tseden, 2018)

Jinpa poster 1Dreams, reality, and memory intertwine in Pema Tseden’s surrealist Tibetan western Jinpa (撞死了一只羊, Zhuàng le Yī ZYáng). Cycles of revenge and regret, killings accidental and deliberate, lost love, and inescapable karma bind two men or two parts of one whole as two travellers meet each other on the road, part, and then are perhaps reunited if in a more spiritual sense than literal. Moving away from the realism of Tharlo into mystical abstraction, Pema Tseden’s sixth feature is as obtuse as it is beguiling.

The titular Jinpa is an ultra cool truck driver in black leather and sunshades whose main jam is, incongruously enough, a Tibetan cover of O Sole Mio. Out on the road one day and distracted by the swooping flight a nearby bird, he accidentally hits and kills a sheep. Remorseful, Jinpa bundles the poor creature’s body into his cab, only to have to shift it into the back when he gets another passenger – a young wanderer (Genden Phuntsok) who later abandons his silence to explain that his name is also “Jinpa” and he’s on a quest for revenge against the man who killed his father 20 years ago. A decade long search has led him to Sanak where he hopes to find the man he’s looking for.

The men part company at the next turning, but the older Jinpa can’t seem to forget about his strange encounter. He takes the sheep for a proper funeral (before stocking up on lamb from a street stall), and pays a visit to lover where he unable to perform to anyone’s satisfaction. Jinpa hits the road again to look for his hitcher, either eager to prevent a crime which may add to his own karma, or simply to discover the end to the mystery.

Jinpa’s accidental slaughter of a sheep and the younger man’s quite deliberate quest for blood become somehow linked. Tracking the other Jinpa he finds himself at a tavern with a flirtatious barmaid (Sonam Wangmo) who gives him a few more clues, most particularly a possible identification of the man the other Jinpa might have been looking for but her tale is a strange one. The tavern goers’ background conversation is identical to the present moment, implying this is either one very boring spotlight hogger or that events are somehow occupying the same temporal space.

Shifting into hazy black and white for his flashbacks, Pema Tseden hints at the malleability of memory – as if one figure could easy be swapped out for another, past and present uncomfortably overlapping with memory as the unstable glue at their centre. The younger Jinpa’s prospective target, we discover, also has a son. Would he grow up to seek revenge against the man who killed his father? One circle closes, but another envelopes it just as quickly. A man kills a sheep, by accident, but perhaps there’s more that he’s atoning for than simply inattentive driving.

“If I involve you, it becomes your dream too” the opening text tells us citing a Tibetan proverb. Could the older Jinpa simply be dreaming a version of himself, or are the two men somehow inhabiting the same dreamscape? Events repeat, the two men walk the same path at different times, diverging and reuniting as they make their way towards whichever realisation is lying in wait for them.

Played by real life poet and actor himself called “Jinpa”, the eponymous hero oozes cool in his edgy rockstar getup and ever present sunshades, embodying the stranger in town a little too consciously as he wanders in search of his younger self. Produced by Wong Kar-wai and adapting Tsering Norbu’s novel The Slayer, as well as the director’s I Ran Over a Sheep, Jinpa is an unabashed exercise in style and mood, swapping the washed out iciness of the road for the colourful warmth of taverns, stores, and temples while memory remains a blur of radiating black and white frustratingly difficult to see in its entirety. Jinpa’s circular travels mimic his life, caught between cycles of violence and regret but hoping for forgiveness and eventual release. Abstract and inscrutable, Jinpa’s mythic fable nevertheless retains its strange power as its hero(es) attempt to free themselves from an inescapable spiral of existential despair.


Jinpa screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 29.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Soul on a String (皮绳上的魂, Zhang Yang, 2016)

soul on a string posterAt the end of Zhang Yang’s Shower, there’s a lengthy fantasy sequence taking place in a desert in which a young girl is about to enjoy the first and last bath of her life as a right of passage before she is married off. Intended to emphasise the importance of water, the need of which acts as the great leveller for all living things, the brief movement away from the struggles of two brothers and their soon to be torn down bathhouse acted as a kind of lament for a perceived decline in values and priorities in a period of intense economic development. Jumping on a few films and many years later, Zhang Yang’s desert odyssey Soul on a String (皮绳上的魂 , Pisheng Shang de Hun) again takes place in an arid land where values and humanity are in peril. Adapted from two novels by Tibetan-Chinese novelist Tashi Dawa (Tibet, The Soul Tied on a String, and On the way to Lhasa), Zhang’s Tibetan western marries the classic wandering stranger narrative with a Buddhism infused magical realism.

Ruthless loner Tabei (Kimba) kills a deer only to find a mysterious amulet in its mouth recently acquired from a little girl who fell off a cliff. Experiencing his first bout of divine retribution, Tabei is struck by lighting only to be mysteriously revived by a cryptic Buddhist priest who tells him it’s his job to take the amulet to the holy land where he will also be cleansed of his considerable sins. Taking his rebirth seriously Tabei takes off even though the priest’s only hints about the location of the holy land are that the distance is under his feet and that the road is on his back.

Meanwhile, hot headed youngster Guori (Zerong Dages) is on Tabei’s trail hoping to kill him in answer to a blood feud. Tabei has committed many sins of his own but the murder of Guori’s father in a pointless gambling dispute is not one of them. Tashi died at the hands of the father Tabei never knew but as custom dictates, sons may take vengeance from sons to satisfy their honour. Trudging on through his quest, Tabei will have to face the legacy of his past even if he doesn’t really want to. Acquiring a persistent follower in Chun (Quni Ciren), a young woman with whom he spent a night on the road, and later a mysterious child with strange powers, Pu (Yizi Danzeng), Tabei pursues his spiritual quest finding his soul becoming lighter all along the way.

The futility of a blood feud, perhaps more a feature of the spaghetti western than the classic Hollywood model, lies at the heart of the spiritual drama as the spectre of vengeance for a father’s crime has overshadowed Tabei’s entire life. Guori, young, tough, and angry is determined to avenge the father who left him in such a stupid and pointless way but only increases the depth of the debt. When we first meet him he thinks he’s met his target only for the man to explain to him that many men have the name Tabei and he’s looking for someone else. Guori doesn’t believe him and kills the man anyway. If this man had a son, there is now a blood debt on Guori’s head to equal that of his quarry.

Guori’s persistent failures cause nothing but consternation to his ambivalent mother who worries for her son but also wants to see him prove himself a man and avenge her husband’s death as honour dictates. Older brother Kodi (Lei Chen) is less committed to the idea of vengeance but eventually takes on its burden. Kodi, like Tabei, sacrifices much out of the necessity of achieving this pointless goal, abandoning a woman he loved and a happy future as the father of a family. Tabei offers this same excuse to Chun in explaining his reluctance to father a child – the blood curse will simply pass to him should he be forced to kill Kodi or Guori in defending himself. The cycle never ends, only perpetuating itself through successive acts of violence.

Yet as Tabei gets closer to the promised land, his soul begins to clear. No longer so gruff and unapproachable he allows Chun to travel with him, becoming a kind of father figure to a makeshift family completed by the strange little boy, Pu. Shot against the beautiful yet unforgiving Tibetan landscapes, Soul on a String is a tale of redemption, violence, love, and legacy shot through with ancient mysticism and obscure spiritual questioning yet for all of its inherent inscrutability Zhang’s return to the desert proves infinitely fascinating despite its necessarily epic dimensions.


Soul on a String was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)