Dir/scr/prod: Zhang Yang. China 2015, 115 mins

Paths Of The Soul follows an incredible journey by Tibetan villagers on a gruelling 1,200 mile pilgrimage to the holy capital of Lhasa. As they stoically endure harsh winter weather, physical exhaustion and the many hazards on the road, the film develops into a stirring salute to their deep-rooted spiritual devotion and quiet determination.

The pilgrims are required to walk three or four steps and then throw themselves to the ground, fully prostrating their bodies and kowtowing

Simplicity is very much the key strength of a film that blurs the lines between documentary and drama as director Zhang Yang uses non-professional actors and a non-scripted narrative to create a fictionalised account of true events. Paths Of The Soul had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September and should prove appealing to other festival programmers and with distributors able to invest some care and commitment in promoting this absorbing and moving tale.

There are distant echoes of a John Ford western as a group of villagers gather their possessions and prepare for a pilgrimage. A wagon of supplies is attached to a tractor and they take to the road like pioneers heading into the wild west. The pilgrimage requires them to walk three or four steps and then throw themselves to the ground, fully prostrating their bodies and kowtowing. Wooden panels adorn their hands, thick leather aprons eventually fray at the knees and a bump on the forehead soon becomes a mark of piety.

It is an act that is to be repeated every few steps along a journey that proceeds through biting winter winds and snow, along roads where trucks and lorries whizz past and even over water and rocks. When they arrive at one flooded road they continue as before, flinging themselves into the water and later drying themselves off.

Zhang Yang and cinematographer Guo Daming observe their progress, maintaining as unobtrusive a presence as possible. The absence of music adds to the intensity of the experience, as if the director was inviting the audience to share the serenity and single-minded focus of the pilgrims. There are incidents along the way that feel slightly manufactured, especially when their tractor is forced off the road by an accident. On the other hand, the moment when the pilgrims are showered with falling rubble feels very real.

The repetitive actions of the pilgrimage risk becoming monotonous, but Zhang Yang works against that by involving us in the lives and motivations of the eleven pilgrims, led by Nyima (Nyima Zadui) and his elderly uncle Yang (Yang Pei).  Pregnant Tsring (Tsring Chodron) gives birth along the way. There is also a death and a hint of romance. People have joined the pilgrimage to honour the dead, atone for their sins, cleanse themselves of bad karma or to pray for the happiness of others.

There are also some utterly charming moments when the pilgrims dance by the side of a river or help plough a kindly farmer’s field. Their joy in the simple pleasures of life and the sense of serenity achieved through the observance of their faith combine to make the villagers beguiling company along these long and winding mountain roads.

Production company: Helichenguang International Cultural Media

International sales: Asian Shadows  anne@chineseshadows.com

Cinematography: Guo Daming

Editor: Wei Le

Featuring: Yang Pei, Nyima Zadui, Tsewang Dolkar.