Movie Review: Tharlo

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A comedy of errors for a country-bumpkin in a mountain city – and a somber meditation on modern Chinese-Tibet

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There is no overt protest or condemnation in the film Tharlo.  There are no squads of Chinese riot police rounding up Tibetan monks and putting them in wagons.  There are no self-immolations.  There are no demolished temples.  The film merely presents the quotidian realties of a modern Tibet occupied by China.  Drinking baijiu in a KTV.  Getting an ID photo taken.  Quoting Chairman Mao in the local police station.

Nonetheless, this film by Pema Tseden, based on the filmmaker’s own novel , is a profoundly political dark comedy.  Because the film’s condemnation of Tibet’s present-day predicament is muted and buried underneath its stringent realism, it has not been banned in China.  But the film is undoubtedly a lament, highlighting the at-times soul-crushing banality and triviality of China’s take on modern-culture.

The film sets Tharlo, an innocent and naive goatherd newly arrived to a provincial town from the countryside with one of his baby goats, up against the everyday practicalities of urban Chinese citizenship.  Tharlo represents a persistent but non-ideological adherence to a traditional Tibetan way of life while the urban Chinese and Tibetans around him struggle to adapt to modern China.

In the opening scene of the film, Tharlo is in a police station reciting the words of Mao Zedong rhythmically and melodically, like a Tibetan Buddhist sutra.  Why exactly he is in the police station is unclear, but he is a newcomer in the town and as a new resident he needs an ID card.  The police officer, eyeing him suspiciously, informs Tharlo that for an ID card he needs a photo.

At the photography studio, we witness a newlywed couple posing for wedding photos in front of fake backdrops of the Potala Palace, Tiananmen Square and New York City.  For the last backdrop, the couple is convinced to change into “Western” clothes.  Tharlo, eager to offer his own input, convinces the couple to hold and feed his baby goat during the photo.

When it’s Tharlo’s turn for a photo and he removes his hat, his hair is standing on end.  The unseen photographer tells him to go wash his hair.  In the barbershop, he meets the attractive proprietress and is clearly nervous and smitten.  After initially mistaking her for a man due to her “short” hair (her hair is down to her shoulders while Tharlo himself sports a long ponytail) he tells her of the large herd of goats he tends to, which he estimates to be worth about 180,000 RMB.

This seems to peak her interest and sets off a “romance” of sorts and some tension for the viewer.  The hairdresser is a woman of the world – she smokes (Tharlo has never seen a woman smoke), is sexually experienced and wants to move to a larger city in the East.  Does she really find Tharlo’s rugged appearance and simple innocence attractive or is she after his money?  Will she hurt Tharlo, or will Tharlo unwittingly hurt her?

Anyone who has visited or lived in China will recognize Tharlo’s character.  Modern China is profoundly unequal and in China’s cities migrants from the countryside rub shoulders with wealthy urbanites.  Rickety e-bikes collide with Ferraris.  The more sophisticated long-time city-dwellers (expats included) bemoan the oafish behavior of the migrants – their spitting, jaywalking, cutting in line and generally uncouth behavior.  Meanwhile, more fundamental issues – like the broader sadness of such inequality itself and the seeming incompatibility of traditional and modern customs – receive comparatively little attention.

Tharlo’s setting in Tibet adds an additional layer of tragedy to the narrative, considering Tibet’s history of invasion and occupation and the continued process of Sinicization underway through Han-Chinese migration and economic influence.  The heavy police presence in politically sensitive Tibet is evident in the background.  In one scene, Tharlo is suspected of being a thief for loitering a bit in the street.  Street cops are not nearly so vigilant in the over-populated Han-majority cities of eastern China.

The absurdity, humor and comedy in the film derive from watching Tharlo, the country-bumpkin, wrestle haplessly with the customs of city-life.  While Tharlo could be categorized as a “comedy”, a sense of tragedy emerges from the evident rural-urban disconnect in China and Tibet, a disconnect so vast it creates absurdity in human interactions. Meanwhile, the film’s minimalist style, black and white colors and unabashed realism lend the film a somber, tragic air.  There is no camera movement, soundtrack or complex editing – just very long takes and the movement and sounds of everyday life.

Many of these long takes seem to be framed in some way, providing a filter for the film’s action with Tharlo as the usual focus.  In the opening scene, when Tharlo is reciting Mao poetry, he seems to be standing in front of a doorway.  Later, when the policeman steps into the background to sit at his desk, we realize the doorway is actually a wooden picture frame and that it’s in front of Tharlo, not behind him.

In another scene, we watch Tharlo smoking in the street from the point of the view of the hairdresser through her barbershop’s window, the shop’s blinking lights up close and out of focus.  This framing of Tharlo focuses the attention on him and as we watch him fidget and shuffle his feet, all the while smiling pleasantly, it highlights his awkwardness and incomprehension of city-life.

Although Tharlo is a film about an average man, the film itself is not aimed at an average audience.  The slow, meditative pace of the film, in which the passing of time seems like that of real life, and the absence of color, big name actors and a dramatic plot, will test the patience of most viewers.  This is a quintessentially “arty” film – entertaining for its style and for its portrayal of modern-Tibetan malaise.

Tseden is himself of Tibetan heritage and many of his films thus far reflect his interest in portraying the realities of modern Tibet.  His directorial debut in 2002, The Silent Holy Stones, was well-received in China, winning a Golden Rooster Award.  His 2007 film, Soul Searching, was the first film to be shot entirely in the Tibet Autonomous Region and with an all Tibetan crew and cast.  However, his relatively limited output as a director over 13 years of work may reflect the difficulties of making honest films focused on Tibet.

Tseden was permitted to enter this most recent film in Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival, where it won an award for Best Adapted Screenplay and in the Venice International Film Festival.  The film was also released for the first time in Mainland China this month.  However, whether Tseden will continue to be treated liberally by China’s authorities is in doubt.  The Hong Kong Free Press reported that in June of this year, Tseden was detained at an airport in Qinghai and hospitalized after being interrogated all night by police.

If this report is true, it may suggest that even veiled critiques of China’s occupation of Tibet are coming under scrutiny.  Tseden, whose work has until now flown under the radar of China’s authorities, may be faced with a choice in his work – whether to dull or sharpen his satirical barb.

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