"Travellers & Magicians," a Bhutanese film by Khyentse Norbu Review by Tom Savage
Bhutan is the name of a small, Buddhist country bordered by Tibet, India (Assam), and Sikkim, the last of which is another small country once ruled by an aristocracy but which is now semi-dependent on India. Bhutan was isolated from the world for millennia until about fifteen years ago. To the few Westerners who have visited the country since it opened up to travelers, it remains a kind of Buddhist paradise where little of the modern world has intruded at least so far. Run by monks, the country is perhaps what Tibet might have been before the Chinese invaded but on a much smaller scale. The form of Buddhism practiced there is essentially the same as that practiced in Tibet and by Tibetan refugees everywhere.
Travellers & Magicians is only the second film to be made in Bhutan which was not some kind of ethnographic documentary about the place itself. This director, a Buddhist monk, also made the first. It was called The Cup and became a surprise hit several years ago. That film was about a bunch of soccer-loving young monks who decided to import a television set so they could watch the World Cup soccer match. Because of satellite TV, they could watch this event without setting up a transmission and reception apparatus or a TV station inside the country. The head monk of the monastery agrees, a television set is gotten, and the young monks get their soccer match. Although I, for one, would prefer to see Bhutan and any other Buddhist places still preserved by their remoteness from Western culture to remain so for as long as possible, I enjoyed this film enough to watch it twice, once in a theater and once on video. It's a charming movie without being in the least bit cloying or sentimental.
Since that film, I've read in the newspaper that Bhutan has now acquired its own television station. When I heard about this development, I was saddened. Television is the ruin of America and virtually everywhere it goes, so could Bhutan survive it? I'm told by a Buddhist friend who has visited Bhutan from America at least once or twice, that the inroads of our cultural pollution are very slight and that Norbu spent his profits from The Cup on a massive butter lamp tribute to the Buddha. That may be but nevertheless, we have this second film now, Travellers & Magicians, which seems to be at least partially about the effect popular Western culture has or could have in the future on Bhutan. My American and openly gay Buddhist friend insists that this has not occurred and that the one or two Bhutanese who have left their homeland for America quickly became disillusioned with the USA and returned to Bhutan. Still, this new film makes you wonder, for reasons I will explain below.
Travellers & Magicians opens with some Bhutanese laymen shooting arrows at a target and dancing around. One smokes a cigarette; one archer is called "the bearded mosquito." We then see a young man in his room. He has a boom box and is surrounded by pictures of very Western-looking although Asian female singers named Sushi Roll and Stardust. This is the countryside, however. We see singing peasants or small townspeople, if you like. The Western-dressed character thinks he is going to America, "the land of opportunity" and acts like he can't wait to get out of this beautiful but very slow-moving place. He misses the bus to the big city where someone awaits him with a magic visa out. He's young. Everyone else in this movie is much older and not yet corrupted by American ways. Is there or will there be a generational conflict in Bhutan? There would seem to be one brewing judging from this film. My American Buddhist friend says this is nonsense. Nevertheless it is presented in this film as if it were a fact. Our film character, the impatient would-be émigré, has to hitchhike. He reminds me a bit of the Western hippies I knew when I lived in India for three and a half years thirty years ago. The first person he encounters is a man with a native instrument, a kind of lute, called a dramyin. Are there ghosts on this road? The young man (the would-be émigré) seems like a ghost of the people I knew long ago, except they were all Western. He is arrogant and rejects his own culture as much as he can. The man with the dramyin is a monk. He tells a story about older and younger brothers. There is some discussion about how to make yourself invisible, the magic of the film's title. There is some allegorical stuff about riding an untamed horse in a lightning storm. I lived in the Himalayan foothills thirty years ago. You do see wonderful natural phenomena there but this moment seems contrived. Finally, the main traveler gets a ride just before the man on the horse and an old man's young wife find themselves in some unwanted, perhaps, sexual encounter. Someone says: "Monks and drunks, who can take them seriously?"
I saw another film from South Asia recently which I was reminded of at this point: It's a documentary called Born Into Brothels about some children who are total outcasts in their Bengali home city Calcutta because their mothers are whores. A young Western woman, the maker of the film, is trying to save the children from a life of sin and goes about getting them an education, etc. At the end, they are shipped to Amsterdam briefly for a premiere of an art show of their photographs. The children have been taught to take photographs of their environment and their lives in Calcutta. The woman gets them a gallery show in Europe. The sexual situations out of which they arose are much more frequent and more extreme than the story within a story the monk tells in Travellers & Magicians, which could involve adultery and a murder. Somehow, the enforced ghettoization of the prostitutes is a continual problem where as the allegorical story about the old man, his wife, and his visitor seems less real. For one thing, its' divided into several parts throughout Travellers & Magicians. It's also a long story for a monk to tell. Mostly when asked for advice, monks or Buddhist teachers will tell short stories from the lives of the Buddha or a bodhisattva.
But this tale is something else again. Every time the group of "real" travelers begins moving again, the story is interrupted. After the old man is poisoned in the tale, it turns out, at the end of the film, that his death wasn't real. Nevertheless, because it's shown on this film, it must mean something. Is the filmmaker trying to tell us something about Bhutan itself? Maybe so. The film also contains much beautiful color photography of this country's exotic mountain landscape. One of the nice things one notices is that, as the journey progresses, Bhutan is still a place where people help one another as a matter of course, not as the exception. This is probably the outcome or result of Buddhist teachings on compassion, a very important concept in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. Suddenly, the guy in a hurry relinquishes a ride to the monk, a bit unbelievably. He's probably fallen for the young woman traveler who has joined them. After that the parable gets out of hand a bit. The monk seems to be writing a novella, at least.
Still, it's a charming movie. In one of the stories, someone gets poisoned but nobody dies. If this is meant to state something about Bhutan itself and it's contact with the West, it must mean that Bhutanese culture will survive the external temptations brought to it. Finally, our would-be Hippie does get moving. But it's unclear whether or not he ever gets to America. I noticed in the listing of numbers on the soundtrack something called The Yak Song. This title reminded me of Gregory Corso poem called The Mad Yak. The poem goes as follows:
The Mad Yak
I am watching them churn the last milk they'll ever get from me.
They are waiting for me to die;
They want to make buttons out of my bones.
Where are my sisters and brothers?
That tall monk there, loading my uncle, he has a new cape.
And that idiot student of his --
I never saw that muffler before.
Poor uncle, he lets them load him.
How sad he is, how tired!
I wonder what they'll do with his bones?
And that beautiful tail!
How many shoelaces will they make of that?
Of course, Gregory Corso never went to Bhutan. This being an early poem of his, I doubt he'd ever even met a real yak, except possibly in a zoo. Nevertheless, now that we have access to films made by natives of places like Bhutan, we don't need to simply imagine what these worlds are like. We have them at our disposal. Hopefully, we won't dispose of them the way so many other beautiful places have been: exploited then discarded or left behind as former colonies with embittered populations full of desires for American and European wealth and permanently estranged from their own beautiful cultures. If my Buddhist friend, the real traveler, is to be believed, it hasn't come even close to happening in Bhutan. If this film Travellers & Magicians is to be trusted, this great outpost of Tibetan Buddhist beauty probably still has a very long way to go before being compromised as so many other places have been.