Dir: Pema Tseden. China. 2015. 123mins
Issues of identity, clashes of culture and the nitty-gritty of sheep-herding are the themes which drive Tibetan director Pema Tseden’s beguiling fable Tharlo. The eponymous central character, a simple shepherd more used to the derisive moniker ‘Ponytail’ than he is to his given name, finds the certainties of his austere, isolated existence called into question when he is sent to the nearest town to be photographed for an ID card. This is a slow burning piece of storytelling which moves at the same unhurried, methodical pace as life in the steppes. As such, it requires a certain investment from the audience. However, this is repaid amply by an unassuming but accomplished picture which should connect with an adventurous arthouse audience.
For the most part, this is a beautifully judged picture from a director to note.
The film also works on an allegorical level as a commentary on Tibet itself. Tseden shows us a country where deep-rooted traditions and a rich cultural history co-exist uneasily with the encroaching tide of modernity. Tharlo (Shide Nyima) is a man full of contradictions. He has an exceptional memory and can still recite the huge, unwieldy chunks of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book that he learned as a nine-year-old. But he can’t remember how old he is – his rough estimate is “past 40, I guess”. In some ways, he has stalled at the point where his scant education stopped and he was sent to work. Morality, for him, is black and white. People are either good or bad.
When he is informed by the local police chief that he must get an ID card, he is bewildered. “I know who I am. Isn’t that enough?”. But he complies, and with an orphaned lamb in tow, he makes the long journey to the nearest town. The photographer takes issue with his straggly, unwashed hair and sends him across the road to a barbers to be tidied up a little. It’s here that he has the fateful encounter that will change the course of his life.
The hairdresser, Yangchuo (Yang Shik Tso) , is a modern young woman. She has cut her hair short, she smokes. Tharlo is slightly scandalised; it’s the first time he has seen a Tibetan girl smoke. She lazily toys with Tharlo, tugging his stringy ponytail and calling him handsome. He is lost.
Tseden shoots in striking black and white, using long takes and locked shots which give the audience plenty of time to absorb the admirable work by production designer Daktse Dundrup. But where the film really excels is in its use of sound, supervised by Dukar Tserang.
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.
Some of the symbolism is a little heavy handed. The lamb, for example, is clearly a metaphor for Tharlo’s embattled innocence. So no prizes for guessing how well things work out for the lamb. But for the most part, this is a beautifully judged picture from a director to note.
Production company: Heaven Pictures (Beijing) Culture & Media Co., Ltd.; Beijing YiHe Star Film Production Ltd. Beijing Ocean & Time Culture Communication Co, Ltd
International sales: Asian Shadows, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Leilei Wu, Xuebo Wang
Screenplay: Pema Tseden
Cinematography: Songye Lu
Editor: Song Bing
Production designer: Daktse Dundrup
Main cast: Shide Nyima, Shik Tso Yang