By John Hartl
Special to The Seattle Times
May 4, 2007

Homesickness for Tibet is the overriding emotion in the wistful "Dreaming Lhasa," the first dramatic feature film from documentary veterans Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam.

The most intriguing character is Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), a rebellious ex-monk who escaped his homeland after spending four years in prison. Helping him to tap into his past is Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso), a moody Tibetan-American filmmaker raised in New York.

Karma's making a film about Tibetan refugees who have ended up in Dharamsala, a town in India and home of the exiled Dalai Lama. Dhondup left Tibet for India shortly after his dying mother asked him to contact a stranger who may or may not have survived a revolt against the Chinese. Karma follows him as he tracks down this mystery man who, as a shamelessly vague oracle declares, is "near yet far."

Whenever the filmmakers stray from Dhondup's story (and the tales of other refugees), they tend to lose their way — especially when they insist on introducing a tepid romantic triangle that involves Dhondup, Karma and Jigme (Tenzin Jigme), an immature young man who wants to be a rock musician.

The inexperience of the actors doesn't help. Jigme, who plays in a Dharamsala rock band, had not acted before. After the filming ended, Gyatso went back to a banking job. Kalsang, who appeared in "Himalaya" and "Windhorse" and has worked behind the cameras as well, gives the most confident performance.

Still, though they're obviously a mismatch, even Karma and Jigme have their moments as a couple. One slow-dance sequence is neatly choreographed around the Cowboy Junkies' husky version of "Blue Moon," and Jigme does bring a much-needed sense of spontaneity to his scenes.

The handsome (if dark) cinematography is the work of Ranjan Palit, who previously worked with Sarin and Sonam on their 1998 documentary, "The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet." Richard Gere (who provided seed money) and "Last Emperor" producer Jeremy Thomas are among the executive producers listed in the credits.

John Hartl: