Travellers and Magicians - reviewed by Susan Yung
Travellers and Magicians Directed by Khyentse Norbu
In the land of high-tech sci-fi dreams and Hollywood CGI movies, the Quad on 13th Street, a place showcasing art and foreign films, is showing Travellers and Magicians. By American standards, this movie would be considered low-budget and low-tech with a simple plot. It is a movie about the remote Buddhist nation, Bhutan, filmed by Khyentse Norbu, a Bhutanese monk. Unlike his first film, The Cup, a story of Buddhist monks interested in catching the world soccer game on satellite TV in Bhutan, his second film is about Dondrup, a local government official interested in traveling to America. He is characterized as bored with his government clerical job and the village's trivial pastimes of archery and housewarming ceremonies. Like any immigrant coming to America, he desires to more money and Western possessions.
To many Westerners, Bhutan is an independent Buddhist nation operated by a Bhutanese monarchy. It tries to protect its people from Western exploitation and the development of Western needs. In the past, Bhutan was highly expensive and limited the amount of time tourists could stay in the country. Recently, it has become more flexible by reducing its rates and raising the tourist quota.
Thus we see Dondrup at the shabby post office, anxiously awaiting an American friend's letter that will provide him the necessary passage. When the letter arrives and instructs him to meet at a festival in Thimphu in two days, Dondrup quickly packs a carry-on suitcase and carries along his small boombox and Western tapes. He tries to catch the morning bus but is too late because he encounters a kind neighbor who gives him some dried cheese for the trip.
The film gives us a microscopic view of the Bhutanese terrain under the ice-capped Himalayan Mountains, where houses and villages stand in isolation. The roads wind unpaved through the mountains, where traffic is sparse. Westerners viewing the film appreciate how beautiful, relaxed, and peaceful Bhutan is, filled with prime forests and devoid of noise and stressful pollutions.
Once Dondrup misses one bus, it is uncertain when another will arrive. It might take hours or days, so Dondup waits on the road for any form of transportation to pass by.
As he waits, an apple peddlar approaches and waits, increasing the competition for room on the next transport. As Dondrup moves ahead of the road, a monk appears, carrying a stringed instrument, also en route to the festival. The monk's questioning of Dondrup's longing to reach a "Dreamland" becomes a tease throughout the journey. The monk's joviality does not improve Dondrup's spirit, but makes him all the more frustrated and determined to leave Bhutan. They join the apple peddlar for the wait, and, to pass the time, the monk entertains them with a story accompanied by his stringed instrument.
The story is about two brothers; the elder is studying to be a magician, albeit with a lackadaisical attitude toward his work; the younger, being smarter, has more interest in the art. One day, the younger brings his brother his usual lunch, but he has spiked the "chang" (beer) with an herb. Upon drinking the beer, the brother begins a journey on a runaway horse and is injured in a frightening storm. Eventually, he reaches an isolated dwelling; an old man opens the door and he rests next to a woman ...
The story is interrupted by an arriving truck, and the journey to Thimphu begins. The filmmaker has set up a story woven within a story, allowing the viewer a better insight into Bhutanese culture, leaving open the issue of any correlation between the two journeys.
On the truck, the monk begins his story again.
The young man wakes up the next morning to the sound of a loom. He peeks through a crack, seeing (to him) a beautiful face, that of the old man's wife. The young man tries to hide his feelings and the old man invites him to breakfast. He questions why they live so far from the village, and the old man explain that he is protecting his wife from the local village admirers so she won't go astray. The old man explains that the young man can reach the village by following the river on the other side of the hill, and he will go so far with him. Once shown the way, the young man becomes lost and winds up again at the couple's lodging. He stays until his injury is fully healed...
The truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere. As the driver makes repairs, two more travellers arrive. It is a "beautiful" (the monk's opinion) girl with her father, a papermaker. They too are en route to the festival. It is agreed they can join the group, and as they wait, the monk continues his story.
Accordingly, the young man and the young wife fall in love. As usual, there are romantic montages showing this development under the unsuspecting eye of the old man...
The truck is repaired and the travellers begin their journey again until they reach a stopping point. The truck leaves the travellers on the road and drives off. They wait for other vehicles and guess whether this or that car will pick them up.
Eventually, a red Mustang passes, driven by a modern, Westernized Bhutanese woman. (Whom we briefly see as the actress in the monk's story.) She races pass the travellers, never stopping to pick up any passengers. Snide remarks are made about such a modernized Bhutanese, and thus, they decide to walk along the road to Thimphu until the next willing transporter comes along.
A nearly full bus arrives, with room for only one passenger. A discussion ensues, and Dondrup is offered the ride, but he declines for some reason and gives the seat to the apple peddler. Once the bus leaves, the rest begin to walk again, until they reach a resting point for the night. Underneath a large Buddhist painting on a rock, the monk begins his story again.
The plot thickens when the wife confesses her pregnancy to her lover and they plot to rid themselves of the old man. The young man finds a poisonous plant, and the wife mixes it in the beer. However, it takes forever for the old man to die, and the young man becomes frightened. He realizes the harm and agony he has caused and runs through the forest to escape from his responsibility. The hillside is filled with the woman's screams for help, and he eventually finds her garment in a stream.
In the next scene, the young man drowsily wakes up from the drugged beer and finds himself sitting on the mountainside with his younger brother, having his lunch and making preparations to return home. We realize that the young man has been on a drug-induced-journey. The moral of the monk's story is to learn your lessons well before practicing the magic.
The next morning, the daughter cooks breakfast for the group, and, spurred on by the monk, Dondrup flirts with the girl. Eventually, a tractor is heard on the road and is stopped. The girl and father take the ride to Thimphu as the monk and Dondrup continue walking down the road. As the film ends, we get a sense that Dondrup may eitherstay and marry the young girl or else continue on his travels to America.
Khyentse Norbu subtly depicts an encroaching westernization in an ancient traditional culture where the grass always seems greener on the other side. Norbu wants to compare the monk's story to Dondrup's escape from Bhutan which focuses on Dondrup's potential romantic interest and the monk's tragic love story. His film depicts a story within a story, and only differentiates the monk's story with dreamlike muted colors, while the travellers remain in the yellowish tones of an ektachrome film. Somehow, we realize the monk's story and the love interest may cause Dondrup to stay in Bhutan. We get some insight when he quits smoking on the road and offers to carry the girl's heavy bundle. She refuses, but he appreciates her independence and loyalty to her father.
As New Yorkers view the simple Bhutanese culture, we momentarily escape our modern civilization and probably wonder why Dondrup wants to experience the degrading immigrant life in America. In New York City, I see a lot of Tibetans who are escaping China's persecution in Tibet and they do not seem as jovial as the monk in the movie. Their approach to America does not reflect Dondrup's enthusiasm, given the obvious problems of acculturation and their invisibility even while maintaining the diversity of our country. For the viewer, we see Dondrup's enthusiasm as humorous, while the filmmaker exploits it for Western audiences.
For this reviewer, this movie becomes monotonous, since it is a "teaching" film about the Westernization inevitably encroaching upon an isolated, innocent, simple culture. Since I am highly influenced by fast, cutting-edge action movies and heroic aggressions against evildoers, Norbu's film looks awkward. I only appreciate that he is the only filmmaker from Bhutan depicting his country's unresolved dilemmas.
What will the filmmaker's next movie be? ... Buddhism in America with CGI mixes?