10 April 2007

Reviewed by Harvey S. Karten

Of all the towns and cities I’d visited while on a summer teaching grant in India, none had more Shangri-La-like charm than Dharamsala, which was about as different from New York’s Upper West Side as the Gobi Desert is different from Calcutta. Dharamsala is in India and yet it is not: this is the area that is chock full of Tibetan refugees, yet another group of people displaced when invaders moved into a homeland forcing out the native people, the latter pledging to return one day just as Chiang Kai-shek impotently had pledged to return from Taiwan and reconquer the Chinese mainland. Though the rulers of mainland China had stated that Tibet was historically part of China and, I believe, some folks in America’s State Department once agreed (in addition the Chinese government added that it was liberating Tibet from centuries of feudal oppression, just about all of the Tibetan people will hardly concur. Witness the result at present: there are more Chinese living in Taiwan today than Taiwanese, and more Chinese are living in mountainous Tibet than Tibetans.

Documentarians Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam take us principally to the Indian town of Dharamsala, which has become the temporary home of those who had fled the Chinese conquerors in 1959, and by now perhaps most of the Tibetans living there know no other place. For all we know, the young ‘uns have no particular urge to move back, cognizant of no particular national identity save what they know of that Indian city. At any rate, “Dreaming Lhasa” is not a documentary, but a fictionalized tale that, better than a doc, explores these issues of national identity, though it does so with some stilted acting and dialogue. Nonetheless given the relative absence of a Tibetan film industry, we should be glad that such a feature has come our way. Romance is in the air, the brisk mountain air is almost palpable. But don’t expect to be hugely entertained.

The story centers on Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso), a Tibetan-American who travels with her young assistant, India-born Jigme (Tenzin Jigme), to interview former political prisoners in Dharamsala. Her main interest is Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), who has recently fled from Tibet determined to fulfill her mom’s dying wish to deliver a charm box to one Loga. As they travel about, the plot becomes a mystery thriller as a cyanide pill turns up inside the charm box, which evokes a story of Tibetan freedom fighters funded by the CIA to fight against the Chinese. Karma becomes herself involved in an identity crisis, conflicted between her own American identity and her roots in Tibet. While the Dalai Lama appears only briefly and the Lhasa of the title is not even shown, “Dreaming Lhasa” is far more concerned with the reality of Tibetan identity, particularly with the frustration of the older generation longing for return while the youths seem only to want visas to America. This is not a film that will satisfy Westerners who think of Tibet as Shangri-La and Tibetans as mystics living on another planet.