Dir: Khyentse Norbu. Bhutan. 2003. 105 mins.
Travellers & Magicians is the first feature film to be shot entirely within the secret and reclusive Kingdom of Bhutan. Like Khyentse Norbu's debut, The Cup, this magic realist fable is being handled by UK-based sales company HanWay. But buyers may find it less attractive than The Cup, which wove two apparently unconnected themes - football and Tibetan Buddhism - into a charmingly exotic, but also reassuringly familiar, tale of the conflict between youth and age, individualism and conformity. While Travellers & Magicians lays on the local colour at least as successfully as Norbu's first outing, thanks also to Alan Kozlowski's epic, National-Geographic-style camerawork, it is less convincing dramatically. Half road movie, half Himalayan folk tale, the film is, in theme and structure, a paean to the mountain kingdom's unhurried pace of life and stress on spiritual values. But while the result is often sweet and intriguing, we yearn for some of The Cup's Hollywood-style plot tension. Distributors would do well to plug the Bhutan angle for all they're worth, and market this good-looking ethnic bagatelle as a low-price alternative to a holiday in the only country in the world where monks outnumber soldiers.
This is one of those films where a pre-screening glance at the production notes pays dividends. Director Khyentse Norbu is the reincarnation of a Buddhist lama; his official title His Eminence Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. When not directing, he either travels around the world lecturing on Buddhist philosophy, or spends months in monastic retreat. The fact that he is clearly not a spiritual dabbler adds weight to the story at the centre of the film. The feature screened in the Upstream section at Venice.
Dondup, a young, Westernised Bhutanese civil servant, embarks on a journey to the capital, Thimphu, on his way to the promised land of the USA. Missing the one daily bus, Dondup takes up with a clutch of hitchhikers that includes a buddhist monk, a wizened apple farmer, and a rice-paper merchant and his rosy teenage daughter. Lifts are few and far between. To beguile the wait, the monk begins to tell a story about a restless peasant boy, Tashi, who steps across a dream barrier into a remote forest shack, where he soon embarks on an illicit affair with the young wife of an elderly shaman.
The other-wordly nature of this parallel, magic realist plot is emphasised by sepia-wash photography and the use of what seems to be a digital soft-focus tool, which makes the background appear as if seen through frosted glass. It's ravishing stuff, and there is a real erotic charge in the performance of Deki Yangzom, who in real life is an employee of the Bhutanese finance department (as in The Cup, all the actors are non-professionals).
But the connection between the two stories is tenuous, at best, unless we are supposed to come away with the rather trite message that the grass is not always greener on the other side. It is this dramatic and thematic soft-centre that eventually betrays the film, leaving us charmed but unsatisfied. There is also an off-putting tang of the officially approved, Welcome To Bhutan promotional video about this project. The director's pro-Bhutanese agenda extended to the decision to make the film in Dzongkha, the official language of the Himalayan kingdom, which is spoken by only 25% of the population. This does not include Norbu - who wrote the original script in English - nor most of the actors.
Prod co: Prayer Flag Pictures
Int'l sales: HanWay
Prods: Raymond Steiner, Malcolm Watson
Exec prod: Jeremy Thomas
Scr: Khyentse Norbu
Cinematography: Alan Kozlowski
Prod des: Raymond Steiner
Ed: John Scott, Lisa-Anne Morris
Main cast: Tshewang Dendup, Lhakpa Dorji, Sonam Lhamo, Sonam Kinga, Deki Yangzom