A new film, Tharlo, premiered in Germany this week. It was shot entirely in Tibet and directed by the acclaimed Tibetan film director, Pema Tseden, who adapted the film from his own novel. Set in the rural area of Amdo, Tibet (now 'officially' called Northwest China's Qinghai province), Tharlo ('the person who escapes' in Tibetan) narrates the story of its middle-aged protagonist, who leads a lonely life with his flocks of sheep (some of whom are occasionally murdered by wolves) until he falls in love with a young hairdresser in a chance encounter while getting a compulsory ID card. Despite the low-budget (2 million yuan ($315,000)), the film is a never-ending visual 'feast' of black and white monochrome, of long takes and locked shots which give the audience plenty of time to absorb the stunning work of production designer, Daktse Dundrup.
The 'modern' backdrop of Tibetan and Chinese script on street-signs and police station walls, flashing neon lights in cheap Karaoke bars, clouds of cigarette smoke, hazy flies, mirrors and reflections (a heavily loaded symbolism of 'smoke and mirrors') is juxtaposed with ‘tradition’ as vast, harsh and unpopulated landscapes, wild animals, silent, starry skies and grey, unmoving mountains. The overall theme is one of ‘knowing oneself’ surrounded by the bleak pessimism and utter futility of loyalty, love and hope in a world bereft of such qualities.
Tharlo is not only a feast for the eyes but one for the ears as well, with sound supervised by Dukar Tserang. As one reviewer put it:
From the moment that Tharlo gets into town, he is buffeted by noise. There’s the constant putter of traffic in the street outside: at least two radios bleeding into each other; the hum of the flies that languidly weave around the shop. It’s a stark contrast to the almost oppressive silence of the mountains, punctuated by the occasional yelp of wolves and mournful folk songs that drift from Tharlo’s radio, ghostly voices from a long-forgotten past. A scene in a karaoke bar is particularly well-handled. Yangchuo slyly serenades Tharlo with the lyrics, “I am leaving the mountains to go out into the world” while outside their cubicle, the world gets drunk and howls at the night.
Since 1951, Tibet is a nation suffering under the colonial occupation of an uncaring, faceless Chinese Communist state. To 'liberate' the Tibetans from 'feudal serfdom' the Chinese have not only imprisoned and murdered thousands of Tibetans but bombarded them with fascist oppression such as memorising state propaganda (and forcing them, by threat of imprisonment or worse, to shun their beloved leader, the 14th Dalai Lama as 'separatist'). In that context, the opening ten-minute scene, of Tharlo fluently reciting memorised quotations from Chairman Mao in Mandarin, was both devastatingly heartbreaking and tragically ironic. As Tseden said about the scene in a recent interview:
It is a stamp that the Cultural Revolution branded on those who remained in the Tibetan region during those years. At the time, many Tibetans could perfectly recite by heart the Mao Quotations. Even today, you can still find some who can. They can recite the whole thing even though they might not fully understand what it all means, and they recite it in Mandarin, except that the tone can sound strange, because basically it’s the tone of reciting the Tibetan Bible. So it is something quite unique to the generation and the region.
The film represents not only a misplaced nostalgia for a Shangri-la that never was, but also the tragedy of ‘modernity’ represented by the woman he falls for and a world where money and status speak the loudest. A sexist, false dichotomy but one which nonetheless many still hold as true. The 'truth' probably lies somewhere in between these two 'delusions' but it was hard to figure out if the solid mountains ‘watching’ the tragedy from 'on high' represented the faceless, bureaucracy of state power, corruption and greed or the knowing, loving awareness of great equanimity in the face of great suffering (a Buddhist ideal). Perhaps both and/or neither. As Sartre famously wrote in ‘No Exit’: ‘Hell is other people’ ( ‘L'enfer, c'est les autres’). In Tharlo, one might say ‘Hell is loneliness.’
Without doubt, Pema Tseden has produced an artistic and political masterpiece, which is astonishing in itself but even more so for a man who grew up and still lives under Chinese occupation and brutality (he was recently hospitalised after being beaten at an airport by Chinese police). A man who still dares to make a film not only located in Tibet but one that also cleverly manages to 'escape' the Chinese censors.
Tseden's two hour allegory, packed with profound poetry and symbolism, communicates far more about the emotional, inner tragedy of the Chinese occupation of Tibet than thousands of political statements or protests. Yet, it was hard not to weep uncontrollably at the hopelessness of it all. The hopelessness of a world where the essential qualities of compassion, love, generosity and honesty are in short supply (Samsara, as Buddhists call it).
One reviewer simplistically called it ‘ a rich allegory for a nation torn between past and future.’ Others glossed over its clear political undercurrent about Tibet. Yet, in more ways than one, Tharlo is an allegory for courageous Tibetans, like Tseden himself. Many have labelled Tseden a pessimist, and he has also stated that he is pessimistic about the future of Tibetans under Chinese rule. Yet, ironically, his creative work and vision reveals an optimist, one who steadfastly refuses to let one’s 'voice' be silenced or crushed in the face of brute oppression and censorship. And for that reason alone the film is a symbol of hope, grace and majesty; like a Tibetan mountain.
'Tharlo' is in Tibetan and Chinese, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes.