By Tenzing Sonam
As a Tibetan filmmaker working in China, Pema Tseden has to tread a very fine line. Whether he continues to make films or not depends entirely on how the Chinese authorities appraise his work in terms of its perceived political loyalties. The uprising of 2008 has made it more difficult than ever for Tibetan artists, writers and filmmakers to operate, given the heightened focus of suspicion that they find themselves under. More than his Chinese colleagues – who are themselves under the constant threat of censorship and blacklisting – Pema Tseden has to be especially careful in his choice of subjects and his treatment of them. Like his inspiration, the Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, he has to juggle between the demands of an authoritarian government while remaining true to his vision. The recent arrest of Jafar Panahi is yet another reminder of the consequences that face artists who step out of line in countries like Iran and China. It is to Pema Tseden’s credit that he adroitly and beautifully navigates this treacherous path in his new film, The Search.
The Search is in the mould of a classic road movie. On the surface, the tale it tells is deceptively simple. A Tibetan filmmaker, accompanied by a businessman, an assistant, and a driver, sets out in a four-wheel-drive across rural Amdo, searching for actors to play the key roles in his new film, which is based on the popular Tibetan opera, Drime Kunden. This much-loved parable tells the story of the Bodhisattva prince, Drime Kunden, who sacrifices everything he has, including his wife and children, and finally even his own eyes, in the service of others. A series of encounters along the way gently propels the film to its subdued and enigmatic climax. As with his first film, nothing much happens by way of drama. Static camerawork, long takes and predominantly long shots that distance the viewer from the characters are the hallmarks of the film. Pema Tseden’s approach is stylistically formalistic and challenging, and makes no concession to the audience. We are forced to engage with the film on its own terms but by the end, we are moved and left with a sense of longing and disquiet.
As the group makes its way through dusty villages and towns in the Amdo highlands, a number of intriguing, seemingly unrelated stories emerges. A young woman’s voice is perfect for the role of Princess Mande Zangmo, Prince Drime Kunden’s wife, and the director is elated. But she agrees to act in the film only if he will take her to see her old boyfriend and singing partner who has left her and is now a teacher in a distant village. Renowned for both her voice and her beauty, we never see her face, which she keeps covered behind a scarf for the duration of the film. Another strand follows the story of a first love that ended in betrayal that the businessman narrates to the director. Unravelling in bits and pieces as they drive through the countryside, this account makes a deep impression on both the director and the young girl who listens avidly in the back of the car.
Other meetings with potential actors take place in schools, monasteries, village homes and even a karaoke bar. The haunting melodies of the arias from Drime Kunden, snippets of which are sung by some of the amateur performers during their auditions, remind us of how moving and beautiful the opera is even as they counterpoint the fact that many of the people the director encounters are unaware of or have forgotten the songs. Interestingly, there is no visible Chinese presence in the entire film but we sense the changes that are taking place in terms of the dissolution of traditional culture in the face of the encroachment of the modern world. Along the way, the director begins to question his own faith in the spiritual purity of Prince Drime Kunden’s sacrifice even as he is drawn to the more mundane concerns of unrequited love, as highlighted by the businessman’s story and the girl’s determined search for her former lover. The film has an elegiac quality to it; a loving farewell to a fast-disappearing way of life tinged by a sense of apprehension at what is to come.
Pema Tseden’s film is a powerful example of the voices that are evolving within Tibet in the fields of art, literature and music. The subtext here, in the absence of political freedom, is a forceful assertion of Tibetan identity, which itself becomes a political statement. Pema Tseden lives in Beijing and makes his films in Tibet, whereas I live and work in exile. I have the freedom to explore subjects that he cannot dream of touching, but he has access to our homeland and is directly connected to the changes that are taking place there. And yet, despite these differences, we share a kinship that springs naturally from our shared history and concerns, and easily overcomes the false barriers that divide us. This fact is subtly emphasised in the soundtrack of The Search, which consists almost entirely of exile Tibetan singer, Techung’s traditional songs from Central Tibet. Under any circumstance, this would be an anomalous choice, both because Techung is an exile and because traditionally, Central Tibetan songs would not have been heard in Amdo. But in the new reality, where cultural cross-pollination, both within the traditional regions of Tibet, and between Tibet and the exile Tibetan world, is thriving, this seems to be an affirmation of the deep links that continue to bind all Tibetans.