'Dreaming Lhasa' tells of a quest to find a Tibetan exile in India

World Scene Writer
Tulsa World, 5/18/2007

Part mystery, part quest and even a dash of agitprop, "Dreaming Lhasa" is an intriguing and uncategorizable little drama that opens a door to a part of the world which we Westerners rarely see.

Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso stars as Karma, a young Americanized Tibetan woman who's fled to the ceiling of the world to escape an unhappy domestic situation. Settling in Dharamsala, India, she's buried herself in the making of a documentary about native Tibetans who have fled the Chinese oppression of their homeland.

Interviewing refugees is absorbing work, but it's when she meets a former monk named Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang) that she finally has a goal that captures her imagination.

Dhondup's mother has recently died, and to honor her deathbed wish he's slipped out of Tibet to return an old charm box that a man named Loga had entrusted to her years before. Karma agrees to help him make inquiries among the refugee community -- and when their initial attempts produce a series of dead ends, the question of what's become of the mysterious Loga begins to occupy more and more of her time.

The few hints and rumors they manage to dig up lead them farther and farther from urban Dharamsala, following the 15-year-old trail of a man whose essence seems as maddeningly contradictory as the object of an Orson Welles movie.

Loga, it seems, was an accomplished freedom fighter in Tibet's bloody struggle against the Chinese, a hero among his people. He also may be a wanted murderer on the run from local justice. He may even be dead, but Dhondup refuses to believe that.

In a film filled with interesting characters, Dhondup is the most fascinating. Jampa Kalsang is an actor reminiscent of the late Charles Bronson, his battered mug and quiet power lending a credible roughhewn edge to the script's portrait of a man beaten down by life but propelled doggedly onward by honor.

As we follow Karma and Dhondup on their journey, we're treated to some spectacular scenery and unblinking glimpses of life among the refugees. Many of those have accepted their lot as new residents of India, turning their backs with a sad shrug on their former lives in Tibet.

Others continue to dream of freedom for the homeland in desultory fashion, drinking away their pain while talking pointless politics or composing Western-style blues songs as a substitute for action.

And a handful continue to risk their lives in open protest.

Taken in combination with the appalling tales of torture and unjust imprisonment contributed by the subjects of Karma's documentary, these brief encounters with Tibet's dispossessed form a compelling picture of an ongoing situation of which many Westerners remain ignorant. Education isn't the movie's most important goal, but it's a welcome byproduct.

Ultimately, though, it's the meaning of the leading characters' journey that will linger with the viewer, the quiet but potent tale of two lost souls whose quest to solve a mystery leads them to discover unexpected truths about themselves.