New York Sun
April 13, 2007

By Bruce Bennett

For more than a decade, the husband and wife documentarian team of Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam has lent its creative voice to the chorus of activists, artists, and sympathizers decrying China's half-century occupation of Tibet. Their 1992 nonfiction film, "The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche," was cited by Bernardo Bertolucci as an inspiration for his Tibetan epic "Little Buddha" and was also clearly an influence on Martin Scorsese's "Kundun."

It's not surprising given Ms. Sarin and Mr. Sonam's prior filmmaking experience, then, that "Dreaming Lhasa," their first feature-length narrative outing, would begin with actual first-person testimonies from exiled Tibetan nationals living in Dharamsala, the Northern India home of the 14th Dalai Lama and his absentee government.

As Karma (Tenzin Chokyi), an earnest young New York-based Tibetan-American documentarian, listens and tapes, displaced Tibetans describe the gruesome tortures they were subjected to when the Chinese crushed the native rebellion in 1959 and their abject longing for a homeland many have not seen in decades. After completing his on-camera obligations, one interview subject, a rumpled, chainsmoking young monk named Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), approaches Karma with a proposition.

"These monks, they're fast," warns Karma's local liaison, translator, and ostensible collaborator Jigme ( Tenzin Jigme). Plenty of näive foreign girls have fallen prey to the charms of young Tibetan men looking for a visa and a ticket out of Dharamsala, he explains.

But the monk has more on his mind than passage to New York, Toronto, or one of the other strongholds of Tibetan resettlement in the West. Dhondup promised his dying mother that he would return a small charm box to a mysterious Tibetan resistance fighter who is believed to be somewhere in Northern India. As they make their way through the exile community, wouldn't Karma and Jigme be in a good position to help the monk track down the box's owner and fulfill his dying mother's last wish?

Part partisan idealist and part Third World slacker, Jigme is drawn to Karma's innocence and her evident sense of purpose, and reluctantly agrees to help her help Dhondup find his man. But the deeper into the mystery of the charm box's vanished owner Karma and Dhondup go, the more they realize what they have in common. During the course of their journey together, the three inadvertent pilgrims form a kind of unrequited love triangle. The filmmakers use Karma, Jigme, and Dhondup's evolving affections for one another to examine the emotional and practical balancing act faced by identity seekers of any nationality.

"They act like they own the place," Jigme complains of his native Indian neighbors. "They" of course, do own the place and "Dreaming Lhasa" is at its best when straightforwardly cataloging and unpacking similar contemporary ironies that have grown out of the more than 50-year Tibetan struggle.

"A Western girl is coming, a Western girl is coming," a group of kids chants as Karma approaches. "I'm Tibetan, like you," she says, but despite her protests the kids know the truth. They're Indian and she's American. As each new displaced generation grows in India, Europe, and North America, Tibet becomes more of a memory and a cause than a homeland. Lhasa becomes less a holy city in the Himalayas than a dream of a life that no longer exists.

Attractively photographed in 35 mm and framed and staged with a documentarian's instinct for place and custom, "Dreaming Lhasa" sensibly opts for faces over landscapes whenever possible. Newcomers Ms. Chokyi and Mr. Jigme are clearly committed to their characters (one gets the impression that Mr. Jigme's scripted and non-scripted lives are quite similar), and both they and Mr. Kalsang all have a gift for understated expression. Ms. Chokyi's inexperience is jarringly evident in a few excruciatingly contrived line readings, but she appears at the very least to allow the film shoot's physical reality to help her cling to the story's fictional reality.

At times, "Dreaming Lhasa" becomes overloaded with politically charged plot points and accompanying pathos; a digression involving a hunger strike by Jigme's brother is particularly clumsy in its execution. Nevertheless, this is a film of both personal honesty and social insight. Whether or not it strikes a blow for Tibetan independence, "Dreaming Lhasa" remains a keenly felt and well-told story of nations and the individual people who form them, wherever they may actually live.