April 13, 2007

By Nora Lee Mandel

A shot of the craggy, sadly haunted face of Dhondup (strikingly played with moving gravity by Jampa Kalsang, the only cast member with any previous acting experience) opens the film. An ex-monk, he has managed to escape from Tibet, as have 2,000 a year according to the introduction, and is recruited at a refugee center to record his persistent efforts against the Chinese government for lovely and young Tibetan-American documentary filmmaker Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso). The interspersed spare interviews from real survivors – including resistance fighters and Buddhist nuns and priests – recount their brutal suppression by imprisonment and torture under the Chinese occupation. All are linked to a September 1987 revolt in the capital of Lhasa. Their horrors and fortitude overwhelm Karma, trivializing her own problems with grant funding and an irresponsible ex-boyfriend back home in New York. (With dyed streaks in her hair, she’s sarcastically referred by the locals as “blonde-head” and “Western girl.”)

Dhondup has a dream that has brought him to India, to fulfill his dying mother’s wish to return an elaborately engraved charm box to a former resistance fighter. Increasingly drawn to him, Karma agrees to accompany him. Their search by bus, train and on foot through India’s varied Tibetan communities recalls the father’s odyssey through rural China to help his son in Yimou Zhang’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles and the grandson’s quest for past truths about the old country in Liev Schreiber’s adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated.

While they encounter some colorful Tibetan traditions maintained by the elderly, the film’s unique focus is on the younger generation. As in Atom Egoyan’s Ararat about Armenians, exile from a persecuted and overrun homeland raises fraught identity issues for those born outside Tibet, whether in India or the United States. Comparable to the Indian-Americans in Mira Nair’s adaptation of The Namesake, Karma keeps insisting to the laughing locals that she is Tibetan, even as she stumbles in the language and slips into English.

Karma’s flirtatious assistant Jigme (the very engaging Tenzin Jigme) and his cohorts represent the modern generation who hang out at pool halls, dance suggestively at discos, keep in contact via e-mail and cell phone, and joke about seducing an American for a green card. But even he supports the political activists in their midst who stage a fatal hunger strike to keep the world’s attention on their cause (as does executive producer Richard Gere).

The soundtrack features a wonderful selection of musical influences, from traditional songs to Bollywood pop and Western rock, including the fusion that guitarist Tenzin Jigme performs in his real-life career with his JJI Exile Brothers band. It’s probably impossible to photograph the foothills of the Himalayas without breathtaking majesty, but certainly one can feel a lot less guilty appreciating the background here than in the Chinese-approved Mountain Patrol: Kekexili that heralded Tibetans protecting their natural resources.

Much as Byambasuren Davaa puts a simple framework inspired by real people for her Mongolian films (like The Story of the Weeping Camel), Dreaming Lhasa, as both the debut feature by this documentarian husband and wife team and the first by Tibetans to explore contemporary Tibetans’ lives, uses fiction as a means to give international visibility to a little-seen community. The visual and factual insights are enough reason to follow along, rather than for its emotionally contrived coincidences and relationships.