TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS
Dondup (Tshewang Dandup), a young government official in a remote village is eager to escape what he sees as a backward and poor Bhutan, with its old fashioned values and traditions. He wants to go to America and be rich like everyone else there. He sets off in his sneakers and I Love NY T shirt, his meagre belongings packed in a second hand Samsonite suitcase - and his ghetto blaster. He waits for the bus and meets other travellers, and his journey is delayed.
Review by Louise Keller:
Buddhist Bhutanese monk and filmmaker, Khyentse Norbu makes the complex appear simple. Magically. And while his philosophical film Travellers and Magicians appears to be an inherently simple tale about a young man from a remote village who dreams of going to America, there are emotional complexities bound tightly like a spiral waiting to be released. It's a cautionary tale about happiness; the moral reminding us that the grass is not always greener elsewhere.
Shot in Bhutan, as was Norbu's first film The Cup, Travellers and Magicians, in many ways, is a far more subtle film. Using the official national language of Dzongkha (a first), and using two parallel stories, Norbu explores the multi-faceted emotion of desire. I especially connected with the central story of Dondup's journey, but the story of forbidden love between Tashi the dreamer and the wife of his elderly host, eliciting tormented passion, lacks the desired impact by taking too long to reach its conclusion. The artful interruptions at crucial moments leave us emotionally adrift, allowing tension to build slowly as the parallel story strands collide. The film's great strength is the characters, and we warm to them all. We care most of all for charismatic Dondup, through whose eyes we venture on the journey that seeks to satisfy the stars (and stripes) in his eyes.
Visually, the film is extraordinary and the locations spectacular, with breathtaking snowy peaks towering above forests of fir trees and harsh terrain. We feel as though we can breathe in the crisp, cool air. One of the great achievements of the film is its sense of place, and a rare insight into the isolated region of a modern-day Shangri-La.
It's ironic that the reason Dondup misses his bus, propelling him on his journey, is because he is held up by locals wheeling a giant phallus - no doubt destined for hanging from the eaves of one of the village's houses. It seems incongruous in this society where modesty prevails, that there exists such an obsession about the phallus. Considered to be a sign of power that wards off evil spirits, the phallus represents both the human form as a symbol of wisdom and opposite impulse, when displayed beside a dagger.
It is with special interest that I enter the world of Travellers and Magicians. In a way I feel as though I have been on the sidelines observing, while reading Bunty Avieson's book 'A Baby in a Backpack in Bhutan' which canvasses her experiences as partner to the film's Australian producer, Mal Watson. We gain a sense of the unique culture, the good nature of the people of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, and an insight into how non-actors were recruited for the film.
Calming and meditative, Travellers and Magicians is for the most part, a taste of tranquillity. Perhaps we are all travellers and magicians on a journey searching for our destination. Or is the destination the journey itself?
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
If you want to squeeze Travellers and Magicians into a genre, or give it a label, you could say it's a mix of pastoral and road movie, with a touch of parable. Kyentse Norbu, Bhutan's first and so far only filmmaker, is not confined by labels and he's not too concerned with the conventions of genre. The Cup, a well received debut which was both a comedy and a wry social documentary, revealed his sensitivities. His new film stays within the cultural confines of his native Buhtan, but he again explores the yearning for things western that The Cup (soccer) broached. This time, he is a tad more explicit in his views, showing the surface appeal of the West (specifically America) as a contrast to the humanistic values of his homeland. But he doesn't make it seem quite so didactic. Subtly, he points to the treasures to be found in what one has, as distinct from what one may dream about - in ignorance of the reality.
The structure of the film is simple but effective: a young man, a minor local official but with the trappings of a cool dude by way of T shirt and sneakers, sets off from a village to find a future of great wealth in America. On the way, he encounters other travellers, and one of them, a monk , tells a story that becomes the story within the story, an allegorical, dream-like element. Or is it the young man's drunken nightmare?
Naturalism comes naturally to Norbu and his cast, mostly regular Bhutanese, rather than pro actors. The ravishing landscape adds almost tangibly to the film's texture, and re-sets our cultural and cinematic clocks to his.
The gentle narrative, the sense of subtle and worldly humour play against the simplicity of the film, and combined, seduces us to go along with the languid pace. It never confronts us, but it still manages to pose some questions as it glides into the lives of all its characters.
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KHYENTSE NORBU INTERVIEW
TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS (PG)
CAST: Tshewang Dandup, Sonam Lhamo, Lhakpa Dorji, Deki Yangzom, Sonam Kinga
PRODUCER: Raymond Steiner, Malcolm Watson
DIRECTOR: Khyentse Norbu
SCRIPT: Khyentse Norbu
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Alan Kozlowski
EDITOR: Lisa-Anne Morris, John Scott
MUSIC: Dechen Dorjee, Donam Dorji, Jigme Drukpa, Bon Funk
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Raymond Steiner
OTHER: Language: Dzongkha
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Serenity Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney, Melbourne Adelaide: May 5, 2005; Brisbane: May 12, 2005