Alex Wright


September 13, 2007

For a country with a per capita income of $875 (Gross National Happiness notwithstanding), Bhutan is developing a promising little film industry. Propelled by the art-house success of Khyentse Norbu (aka Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche), the tiny Buddhist kingdom has been making a splash on the big screen in recent years.

Now comes Chokling Rinpoche (Khyentse Norbu's erstwhile collaborator) with a film about Milarepa, the legendary Tibetan saint.

Milarepa's story is tailor-made for a movie script: A young boy grows up in a fatherless household, is tormented by evil relatives, then runs away to study black magic before returning home to seek his revenge. After killing 35 people in a fit of vindictive rage, he pauses to reflect on what he's done, and comes face-to-face with his own karma. Vowing to change his ways, he embarks on the demanding path to enlightenment.

The story's folk-tale character carries over to the movie, which employs a straightforward chronological narrative that gives the whole thing a charming old world character (CGI effects notwithstanding); but the pacing feels a little stilted at times. The cast of non-actors (mostly monks) turn in serviceable if not-quite-Stanislavskian performances. Still, the movie has plenty going for it; and in the end, it's the story itself that carries the movie, with its centuries-old spiritual teaching about pride, redemption and the power of devotion.

I had the good fortune to see the director Chokling Rinpoche give a public talk in New York last week. Like Khyentse Norbu, he wears two hats: as a film director and as a high lama (Rinpoche) in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. By his own admission, he's a novice filmmaker, but the occasional production shortcomings pale against his obvious mastery of the story's underlying themes.

Milarepa is now in limited release in a few cities around the US, and will likely be making the rounds on the festival circuit as well. Failing that, look for it on DVD in a few months.

File under: Movies

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