Scope | Françoise Robin
Since January 3rd 2018, French cinema goers have had the opportunity to discover in art movie theaters Tharlo, the Tibetan shepherd, a film by today’s main Tibetan director, Pema Tseden (b. 1969). It is the first ever Tibetan film commercially released in France, and one of the very first released in the Western world.1 In this article, I will begin with a description of the film, and place it within the wider frame of the filmmaker’s career, then I will focus on the visual and sound aesthetic qualities of the film. I will conclude on the perspectives offered by the emerging Tibetan cinema scene.
Tharlo, the Tibetan shepherd narrates in two hours and three minutes the downfall of its main character. Away from the reach of the state, at least in his adult life, Tharlo’s seemingly only link with material modernity is his motorbike and his radio. But a new rule has decreed that all citizens of the People’s Republic of China must possess an identity card, including those living in such remote territories as Amdo (north-eastern Tibet, current Qinghai province).2 The state’s edict finally reaches Tharlo, and the film follows him over a period of a few days, caught between two worlds: his familiar, rural, austere environment, where he takes care of three hundred sheep, and an nearby emerging half-Tibetan, half-Chinese town, where he has to go to complete the administrative formality. For the identity card to be valid, a picture is required, so the police officer sends him to the nearest photo studio. Upon seeing Tharlo’s scruffy hair, Dekyi, the studio’s owner, sends him in her turn to the hair saloon across the street. Yangtso, the hairdresser, is a modern, pretty and alluring Tibetan woman. When she expresses interest in Tharlo’s sheep and life, Tharlo is baffled, and so is the spectator, and even more when, in the evening, she takes him to a karaoke – the meaning of which has to be explained to Tharlo. Yangtso the hairdresser sings terribly, and has forgotten the Tibetan songs she knew when she was a shepherdess.3 But it does not matter: she smokes, she drinks, she takes initiatives. In a word, she masters the codes of modernity needed to survive in this new world. Tharlo is lost in the glamorous room of the karaoke: he does not know how to hold a microphone, he smokes old-fashioned, traditional tobacco, he is betrayed by his bodily hexis (sitting cross-legged, which is not acceptable in the karaoke), and he does not know any modern songs – he only knows layi, traditional love songs that shepherds and shepherdesses sing to each other from one flank of the mountain to another. The story then unfolds between those two Tibetans, one, lost in a newly-discovered modernity, the other, maneuvering through it with the cunning that is necessary to operate in an urban environment. But Tharlo is not only a confused misfit, as the first part of the film shows. Taking the spectator by surprise, and breaking narration codes, Pema Tseden shows him by the middle of the film, and for the first time, at great length, silent, in his familiar environment, his shack, the mountain and the flock of sheep he is paid to take care of. His skill, his dedication, his professionalism, become suddenly visible, contrasting with the image of Tharlo the lost loser the audience has built up so far. But Tharlo, now hooked by the pretty hairdresser, returns to the city after having rehearsed new songs for her, in the hope of gaining her heart, and the spectator can only watch his downfall.
Pema Tseden’s cinematographic career
People who have been following Pema Tseden as a writer may be already familiar with Tharlo, since they may have read the eponymous short story, also by Pema Tseden, published in Chinese in a collection of short stories in 2012.4 Moreover, those who have been following him as a filmmaker from his beginnings in 2004 will certainly see Tharlo as the logical continuation or pursuit of his very consistent filmography. Tharlo, his fifth film, is possibly his most accomplished work to date.5 Let us retrace briefly Pema Tseden’s career: after gaining a small notoriety in Tibet as a short story writer, Pema Tseden graduated from the prestigious Beijing Film Academy in 2004, the first Tibetan to be accepted in the “Film Directing” department. He immediately embarked upon his first feature film, Silent Mani Stones (2005), based upon a short film he had made during his studies in Beijing. Silent Mani Stones is set between two scenic spots: a secluded monastery and a small mountain village. In this film already, Pema Tseden focuses on the tension at work between a traditional world, that of the monastery, and a more modern one (although still very rural), that of lay life with television and public schooling, through the character of a teenage monk torn between the imperatives of his quiet monastery life and the more palatable and lively life of his family in his village. After this rather simple début, Pema Tseden made a second and more ambitious film, The Search (2008), possibly Pema Tseden’s own favorite. It also teems with bright colours and sceneries but departs from the previous one in that it sometimes leaves the rural and mountainous sceneries of Tibet to make room for drab, urban scenes as the protagonist, a movie director, roams the north-eastern part of the Tibetan plateau in search of actors to play a modern version of a traditional Buddhist theatrical play. Not surprisingly, the movie director fails to find proper actors and admits at the end that he does not know what he is looking for any longer. While shooting The Search, Pema Tseden had been struck by the blandness and desolation of newly emerging urban places in Tibet. He had seen in this visual material the possible backdrop for his next film.6 The result is Old Dog (2010), which is mainly set in a new but already derelict, gray, nondescript “town” missing any sense of urban planning, resembling all the little settlements that have mushroomed in the middle of the Tibetan plateau under the drive of the double-digit growth that has characterized China in the last twenty years. Old Dog tells once again, but differently, of the struggle between an old and a new Tibet, this time embodied in a father and his son, who disagree upon whether or not to sell their shepherd dog to outsiders, as Tibetan mastiffs have reached skyrocketing price among Han nouveaux riche in the Chinese mainland. The fact that the son, who is in favour of selling the dog, is impotent, is another hint that the new road offered for Tibetans in the scope of the Chinese economic and cultural environment may not be such a promising one. In 2014, Pema Tseden took his followers by surprise, and even created dismay, as he directed The Sacred Arrow, a predictable, conventional and picturesque love story set in a traditional Tibetan village, that does not fit well in his filmography, and which was little shown outside the People’s Republic of China. After this foray into commercial movie, Pema Tseden returned to a more personal form of cinema, reassuring his audience, and went even more radical, resorting to black and white, and documenting the slow descent into hell of a the Tibetan shepherd Tharlo who is unfit for modern life.7
As soon as Tharlo starts, its visual originality strikes the audience. Many Western or Chinese films shot in Tibet or the Himalayas have favoured the lavish, breathtaking sceneries offered by the unique Tibetan high altitude landscape, not to mention monks clad in dark-red shawls chanting prayers against the backdrop of a monastery, or nomads leading flock of yaks. One of the latest avatar of such a picturesque cinematographic representation of Tibet is Zhang Yang’s Soul on a string (2017), a cliché-ridden film teeming with dramatic aerial shots of mountain sceneries but containing little in terms of a plausible scenario and even less in terms of a realistic representation of Tibetan life or characters. It has been Pema Tseden’s clearly stated intention from the beginning to offer an insider’s and alternative vision of Tibet, away from the fantasies developed by outsiders, be they Western or Chinese. He thus daringly chooses to start his film with a long, motionless, black and white sequence shot in a police station, where Tharlo stands up motionlessly, dressed in worn out, non-Tibetan clothes, reciting in one go a speech in Chinese.8 Being a 40-year old Tibetan shepherd, and given his very limited education and social background, Tharlo cannot possibly master Chinese. Still, having been brought up during the Cultural revolution, he has learnt by heart Mao Zedong’s famous 1944 speech, “Serve the people” (Wei renmin fuwu), and recites it in the introductory scene, against the unglamorous but evocative backdrop of the local police station, where the title of the speech, written in huge letters on the wall, echoes the scene. This very famous speech in China is the epitome of the Chinese communist sermon, glorifying those who give up their self-interest for that of the masses and who lead a meaningful life as heroes of the Chinese Communist revolution. Tharlo recites it with faith, in a tone reminiscent of Buddhist prayers. This opening scene sets the tone: Tharlo is obviously a by-product, and possibly a symbol, of a culturally troubled Tibet, to say the least, and Pema Tseden’s film does not intend to cater to the usual visual expectations of non-Tibetan audiences. Still, Pema Tseden does not overstate his purpose, either in political or visual terms. Tharlo is indeed in a police station, but he is not being browbeaten by the Chinese state, or the apparatus of state or its representative. He is welcome there by a nice, laidback and talkative Tibetan policeman, Dorjé,9 who sincerely marvels at Tharlo’s amazing memory (the recitation of the speech lasts for a good five minutes) and answers his questions about some passages of the speech, as both men take it very seriously. This initial, 5-minute long, fixed frame scene, sets the tone of the film. We are in today’s Tibet, a Tibetan world that has been seriously shaken in its most basic tenets and from where all colour has departed. And if there one gets to see rugged mountains of Tibet and its unique sceneries, it is never in a complacent nor gratuitous way.10
Black and white
Since the advent of colour films, B&W has become an aesthetic choice that often characterises art films. Among the most recent examples, one can mention 1945 (2016), by Ferenc Török, a Hungarian filmmaker born in 1971. The film shows the unexpected return of two Holocaust survivors in their Hungarian village, and the social panic and breakup that these two silent and slow characters create among ex-fellow villagers, who all have good reasons to harbour a guilty conscience. The use of B&W here can be explained by the period setting (1945), a period which is associated with B&W still pictures, or films. A less obvious reason of choosing B&W is at play in The Party (2017) by Sally Potter, as the film is set in today’s Britain. The filmmaker has explained, in a rather paradoxical way, that B&W “gives a space for emotional colour”11 – meaning possibly that the lack of colours urges the audience to imagine them, and to re-build characters in a more personal way, without intervention from the filmmaker. In the case of Tharlo, the choice of B&W can be explained in a twofold way: it can first be interpreted as the logical evolution of Pema Tseden’s filmography, his works gaining in darkness as years go by, as described above. But there is also a symbolic and semiotic meaning attached to the use of B&W, for which three different interpretations have been given. First, it can reflect the simple mental world of the shepherd, who sees people and the world as either white or black, i.e. good or bad.12 Pema Tseden also explained in an interview he gave after his film was selected in the “Orizzonte” section of the Venice film festival: “The film is made in black and white as the ruggedness in the images speaks of the situation and ambience of the vast lands of Tibet, and of the state-of-being of the protagonist.”13 In another interview, he declared: “I wanted to use black and white to show the harsh loneliness of the main character and to be as simple as possible. I was thinking, if I used colour, it would look and feel too fake.”14
Basing his ethical cursor on Mao Zedong’s speech, more than on Buddhism which was not an option when he grew up, Tharlo thinks he knows who is good (those who sacrifice themselves serving the people) and who is not. But Tharlo’s limited experience of the modern world does not prepare him well for the cunning and convolutions of urban life, where lying and deceit prevail. Modern, urban life is full of gray zones that Tharlo cannot decipher or, even worse, are not legible: what appears initially as black may be white, and vice versa.
Motionless sequence shots
Another visual feature of Tharlo is its sole reliance on motionless shots, with no close-up or camera movement. Moreover, these are usually lengthy, lasting up to five minutes. Jessica Yeung, a Hong-Kong based cultural studies specialist, who has co-edited an excellent book dedicated solely to the film Tharlo15, notes in her insightful analysis of the film: “the entire film consists in fifty-one scenes, but only eighty-seven shots, of which thirty-six are single-shot scenes. There is not a single camera movement in any of the shots” (Yeung 2018, 50). Yeung interprets this aesthetical choice as reflecting the will to adopt narrative distance on the part of the filmmaker, be it towards his character and above all, towards the audience. By adopting the most neutral narrative position, Pema Tseden avoids to orientate the audience’s vision or interpretation of the film. Moreover, long sequence-shots (Tharlo’s recitation of Mao’s speech; Tharlo’s haircut; Tharlo taking care of his sheep; Tharlo’s motorbike breakdown) can last up to five minutes. They supply the spectator with enough time for his or her gaze to explore images, without haste, and at one’s will, without the director’s interference.
Mirrors and intermediaries
In spite of the radical difference in terms of cultural background between Iran and Tibet, Pema Tseden has declared since the beginning of his career that he saw Abbas Kiarostami as his main source of inspiration. Obvious common points between the Iranian filmmaker and the Tibetan one are slowness and the hiring of non-professional cast. Also, the strained relationship between Kiarostami and the Iranian authorities resonate with problems faced by Pema Tseden, who has openly stated that the strict political and cultural environment in which Tibetan films are made, and their solutions, are reminiscent of the environment in which Kiarostami made his films.16 Here, I would like to focus on another aspect in which one can see echoes of the Iranian filmmaker in Pema Tseden’s works: the recurrent use of mirror (in shops, police stations, cars), and more generally, of intermediate frames (such as doors, windows, still and moving cameras), a hallmark of Pema Tseden’s movies since The Search. This emphasis on indirect viewing, or mediated viewing, can also be traced to the influence of Abbas Kiarostami. In the case of Kiarostami, the device of the frame within the frame is sometimes interpreted as a playful reminder, on the part of the filmmaker, that what is on screen is a representation, and not reality. In Pema Tseden’s The Search, the main character, a film director looking for actors, is always followed by an assistant who films every scene with his camera (presumably to record all the encounters with potential actors). Moreover, door frames, windows, mirrors, TV screens, often appear as intermediate between the spectator and the image on screen – another constant reminder that what one is watching is a movie, a representation, not reality. This technique could be found in Old Dog too, but it reaches a new height in Tharlo, as Jessica Yeung has also pointed out, especially through the emphasis on mirrors (Yeung 2018: 51,52). From the start of the film, Tharlo is captured through the mirror in the hairdresser’s salon, leading sometimes to slightly blurred images. As Pema Tseden declared in one interview: “Regarding the mirrors, the idea was mostly for the beauty salon shooting to show the fake relationship. He had a girl in his mind but the real girl was different.”17 But it goes beyond that love illusion: wherever Tharlo is in town, the camera gaze is mediated, an indication that he cannot see directly the world around him as it really is, with its tricks and traps. On the contrary, when Tharlo is shown leading his solitary life in the mountain, in his habitual environment, the camera gaze is direct. But even there, when he has failed to protect his herd from marauding wolves, he is seen through the rear mirror of the small truck driven by Tharlo’s employer, seemingly signaling a turning point in the narrative process. The most striking use of the mirror can be found in the police station, with which the film starts and almost ends. The opening scene has already been described above. The one before last scene of the film echoes the initial scene, but in reverse: Tharlo is back in the police station to fetch his newly-made and compulsory identity card. But in the meantime, he has experienced treachery and disenchantment. The policeman Dorjé, who does not know what has happened to Tharlo, summons his subordinates (it is the first time Chinese characters appear in the movie), for them to listen to that phenomenon: an illiterate Tibetan herder mastering Mao’s speech better than educated, native Chinese speakers. But poor Tharlo at that stage is not anymore the plain, simple and coherent man that he was at the beginning of the film. His performance is disappointing, as he stumbles upon words. To underline the process of loss of oneself that Tharlo is undergoing, Pema Tseden shoots the entire scene through a mirror, since the Chinese letters “Serving the people” are shown in reverse (watchers not reading Chinese can see that too with the word “police” on the wall, also shown in reverse). Tharlo’s loss of self and righteousness is glaring.
The last striking feature of the film which I wish to underline here is its amazing sound track: even more than the beautiful use of B&W, it is the very original soundtrack that attracted the attention of the French distributors of the film, ED Distribution, at a screening at the Guimet Museum in Paris, an Asian art museum that hold annual screenings of the award winners of the Vesoul Asian Film Festival (France), where the film had received two awards. From the beginning to the end, the film is peppered with external, but diegetic sounds, that are not always linkable to visual elements, thus leaving room for imagination: the whistling of a kettle, cars passing by, flies humming, sheep bleating in the distance, motorcars passing by, advertisements coming from loudspeakers, people arguing, to name but a few. Moreover, these sounds come and go from one side of the screen to the other, and sometimes from the back. The postproduction is so well done that many viewers I talked to were tricked by the 3D soundtrack, thinking at first that the movie hall where they were sitting was not well insulated from the outside world. Not only that, but the soundtrack adds meaning to the content of the film: to underscore the difference between Tharlo’s habitat and the urban setting in which he is going to lose himself, Pema Tseden and his sound technician, Dukar Tsering, a long-time working partner, have gone at great lengths to contrast the ambient sound in town with that of the countryside. In the former case, external, unexpected sounds reinforce the feeling of chaos, while in the latter, external sounds are reduced to almost nothing (an old clock ticking, sheep bleating, wolves howling). The soundtrack is so rich, unusual and puzzling that the French laboratory that worked to produce the master copy for distribution in the movie halls initially thought it was flawed, and even offered to “clean it up”, something which the distributors, who had particularly liked the play with sound, objected to.
It has now been a little over ten years since Tibetans in the People Republic of China have embarked upon feature film making.18 The result, given the lack of funding, the lack of national backing, the lack of film education in Tibet, the hardships entailed by having to build a film industry almost from scratch, is fascinating. As I have described elsewhere (Robin 2017), Pema Tseden, its pioneer, has become the tutelary figure of this burgeoning cinema. Commenting upon Tharlo, Pema Tseden remarked that his main character was “typical of Tibetans of the present generation. This is a story that shows them in a state of confusion, disorientation and desensitisation”.19 Most of Pema Tseden’s film are variations about this theme, and his success and quiet charisma certainly shapes aspiring Tibetan filmmakers who now take to cinema in tens. Diversity is already at play: Sonthar Gyal (b. 1974), also trained at the Beijing Film Academy at the same time as Pema Tseden, but in the cinematographer section, is renowned for his intimate style, at work in his two films Sunbeaten Path (2011) and River (2015), which both focus on individual characters, and explore individual psychology in time of crisis, rather than on an ethnic community or collective identity crisis.20 Lhapal Gyal (b. 1989), whose first film Wangdrak’s Rainboots was shown at the 2018 Berlinale in the “Generation K” section, has explored the psychology of children whose priorities are often at odds with that of adults, in a colourful film located in a scenic Tibetan village, and totally devoid of political content or even hint. Dukar Tsering, Pema Tseden’s sound director, is currently finishing his documentary They are one hundred years old on the special relationship between his grandmother and her grandson (thus Dukar Tsering’s cousin), Guru, since Guru is considered by all in the community as the reincarnation of the grandmother’s deceased husband. He has also just completed a short film, The Accident, starring Yangshik Tso, the leading actress in Tharlo, a single-scene, single-character 9-minute film, showing Yangshik Tso going through ups and downs over a heated phone conversation with her husband, introducing the audience to conflicting views about patriarchy in a shifting Tibetan society. The years to come will certainly bring to festivals more interesting and demanding films. It is to be hoped that like ED Distribution in France, more distributors will have the audacity to acquire the films and make them available to the art movie circuit.
- Tharlo was briefly released in England on September 2016, as well as in the USA, but did not remain long on screens. The other Tibetan film from Tibet that has secured an international career is River by Sonthar Gyal (2016): it was shown in 27 cities starting on April 2017 and was still shown in Kyôtô in January 2018 (personal information from Hoshi Izumi, professor, Tokyo University, 1st March 2018).
- Tibet was annexed to the PRC in the 1950s.
- In real life, the actress, Yangshik Tso is a professional singer, while the actor who plays Tharlo, Shide Nyima, is a famous actor in Tibet, especially on TV and in live shows. One can find an interview of Yangshik Tso in https://www.eyeforfilm.co.uk/feature/2015-09-07-yangshik-tso-interview-about-tharlo-identity-greed-and-working-with-shide-nyima-feature-story-by-amber-wilkinson and of Shide Nyima in https://folklife.si.edu/talkstory/2016/tibetan-folklore-in-film-an-interview-with-shide-nyima (both accessed 6 January 2018).
- It is now available in English translation in the DVD published by Icarus Film. It can also be found in Yeung and Yau (2018, 68-93).
- Pema Tseden is currently in the phase of postproduction of his sixth film, provisionally entitled The Murderer.
- Personal communication, 2015.
- An excellent overview of Pema Tseden’s films can be found in Yeung and Yau (2018, 4-59).
- The subtleties of code-switching between Tibetan and Chinese are lost on non-Tibetan and non-Chinese speakers.
- It is admirable that most watchers I have been able to talk to, in France, thought the policeman was Chinese, given his authority position and uniform.
- Here, credit should be given to Lu Songye, the director of photography.
- http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-38991848 (accessed 3 March 2018).
- Personal communication, August 2017.
- http://www.day-for-night.org/tharlo/ (accessed 3 March 2018).
- https://www.eyeforfilm.co.uk/feature/2015-09-07-pema-tseden-interview-about-tharlo-tibet-alienation-and-censorship-feature-story-by-amber-Wilkinson (accessed 2 March 2018). Two young Tibetan filmmakers I have been able to discuss with in summer 2017 in Tibet have independently shared their concern with the hues of the Tibetan plateau in the nice season (May to September). Too flamboyant, such bright colors tend to saturate the images of the film and to distract the viewer. For this reason, both declared that they preferred filming in autumn or winter.
- Yeung and Yau (2018). For more information on Pema Tseden, readers may refer to the Journal of Chinese Cinemas 10(2), which dedicated in 2016 a special issue to him, with excellent articles by Chris Berry, Vanessa Frangville, Anup Grewal, Wai-Ping Yau, Kwai-Cheung Lo, and Shaoyi Sun. See also Hladíková (2016), which provides very valuable information on Pema Tseden, especially within the frame of the Chinese cinematographic scene. All articles mentioned here have nurtured my ongoing reflection on Pema Tseden’s works, as well as discussions with Pema Tseden and with film goers I have met in France.
- Still, it must be noted here that none of Pema Tseden’s films have been banned and that all the scenarios have been approved by the Film Bureau. As a Tibetan filmmaker, even more so than a Han filmmaker, he cannot afford to shoot a film without the authorisation of the relevant authorities.
- https://www.eyeforfilm.co.uk/feature/2015-09-07-pema-tseden-interview-about-tharlo-tibet-alienation-and-censorship-feature-story-by-amber-Wilkinson (accessed 2 March 2018).
- Other types of films, such as TV dramas and documentaries, were made by Tibetans a little before 2004, but I will not deal with them here. Outside Tibet proper, Tibetans of the diaspora have preceded Pema Tseden: Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, based in India, have been the leading filmmakers in exile since the 1990s. In France and Switzerland, Tenzin Dazel, with Seed (2011) and Royal Café (2017), has also embarked an interesting film career.
- http://www.day-for-night.org/tharlo/ (accessed 4 March 2018)
- Sonthar Gyal is currently finishing his third movie.
Hladíková, Kamila, 2016, “Shangri-la Deconstructed: Representations of Tibet in the PRC and Pema Tseden’s Films”, Archiv Orientalni, 2016, 84(2): 349-380.
Journal of Chinese Cinemas 2016 10(2), special issue on Pema Tseden
Robin, Françoise. 2017. “Gangshun and the Rise of Capitalism with Tibetan Characteristics”, November 2017, http://highpeakspureearth.com/2017/poem-this-is-how-we-quietly-work-by-gangshun-with-accompanying-essay-by-francoise-robin/)
Yeung, Jessica and Yau, Wai-ping (eds.), 2018. Tharlo. Short Story and Film Script by Pema Tseden. Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press.
About the Writer
Françoise Robin is a professor of Tibetan language and literature at INALCO (National Institute for Oriental Language and Civilisations), France, and a board member of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. While researching the new Tibetan literary scene, she has followed the rise of Tibetan cinema. She has translated a number of contemporary Tibetan short stories into French and English, and subtitled in French most of Tibetan films from the PRC.