Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint
Rated PG, 90 min. Directed by Neten Chokling. Starring Orgyen Tobgyal, Gimyan Lodro, Chukie Kelsang Tethong, Gonpo, Lhakpa Tsamchoe.
There’s much to admire about this old-school heroic drama from Bhutan about an 11th century Tibetan saint who repents the magical revenge he wrought on the villagers who oppressed him: The primary reason is that its ethical intentions are entirely unimpeachable. It’s filmed with the pastoral aesthetic of classical Chinese melodrama – ululating folk vocals accompany painterly wide shots of the titular lone rider traversing a beautiful but forbidding landscape – and there’s something attractively subversive about its message: that a badass sorcerer who can make avalanches and lightning with his hands chooses peace instead. The film is written and directed by a lama, and proceeds from the film will be donated to Himalayan orphans. Unimpeachable. But the movie is so oddly structured that it can’t sustain engagement on the story level; I wish I liked it more. Villager Thöpaga (Jamyang Lodro) grows up fatherless, destitute, and exploited at a time when, the intertitles say, “[lamas] and sorcerers roamed and yogis were seen flying through the sky.” Thus, when he seeks revenge, the black arts come to him naturally after a series of master-initiate encounters. There’s a bit of fun with yogi mind tricks and a painted-on sutra that gives its wearer superspeed, but there’s also some hokum, such as Thöpaga’s sleep-disturbing flashbacks and the glowy medallion that represents the toxin of revenge within his spirit, or something. The strangest part is that half the movie’s arc is missing, but the credits promise its arrival in 2009 as Milarepa Part II: Path to Liberation. For all its epic curlicues, the film cuts off at the real turning point in its hero’s journey. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask Bhutanese lamas celebrating ancient Tibetan spiritual culture to make their movies more classically structured – they are not David Lean – but it is my duty to inform you that the part where Thopaga embraces Buddhism and becomes the saint Milarepa is not in the film. Here you have a languid and excessively expository melodrama (“If vengeance does not come soon, I will kill myself in your very presence!” cries Thöpaga’s mother) with a spiritual through line and a rustic period setting, which isn’t necessarily a problem but for the fact that its hero doesn’t actually become the leader of men its intertitles keep insisting he is – at least not in the film. You just have to trust the lamas.
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