Cinema Signal:

Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon

. "Travellers & Magicians"

From the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between India and China with a population of 700,000, comes their first major film production which has won recognition in festivals and is their official entry for the AMPAS Best Foreign Language film for 2004. Because of the backward nature and poverty level subsistence, it appears, at first, to be a period piece, but it's as current as "Sideways."

Told as a dream vision in flashback, a somewhat unnecessary device, two stories are played out. In the first, Dondup (Tsewang Dandup), a capable government officer works under a local chieftain in the remote rural village of Chendebaji. But, by virtue of intelligence, restless ambition and his knowledge of the outside world, he feels marooned by the limited life here. He acquires a visa and gains permission to make a trip to Thimphu, Bhutan's capital city and, for him, an oasis of activity, a route to a more fulfilling life. His primary intention, is to find a way to America where he envisions great opportunity, a place where he can make more money as an apple picker than as a village lackey.

He quickly packs up and heads off for the highway in order to make the bus, but misses it. This causes him to wait by the side of the very unbusy road in hopes of hitching a ride. He's soon joined by an apple farmer on his way to market his load and, then, a talkative and overinquisitive monk (Sonam Kinga). Despite Dondup's attempts to separate himself from these unwanted companions, the lack of a ride keeps the trio together. To pass the time and to convey advice, the monk relates a parable, which becomes the 2nd storyline of "Travellers & Magicians."

In the monk's story, Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), a young man who loses his way in the forest during a storm, comes to a remote house seeking shelter. Agay (Gomchen Penjore), an old man, reluctantly opens his door and allows him inside, providing food and a place to sleep. The next morning he discovers that the old geezer has a young, attractive wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom), and the predictable slowly develops.

Meanwhile, our traveling road trio becomes a quintet with the addition of an older traveller and his pretty 19 year-old daughter Sonam (Sonam Lhamo) who is attracted to the young officer trying to reach his "dreamland." Will he give up his dream for this young catch?

All of this is contained within the realm of a "G" rating, with writer-director Khyentse Norbu, himself a Buddhist monk, never allowing anything to stray beyond the lukewarm in terms of drama or tension. Violence and illicit sexuality are strictly off limits and find no place on his cinematic roadmap. You can look, but you dare not touch. Anything approaching a strong emotion or an erotic thought, much less a tendency toward any kind of violence, is out of bounds. The closest he comes to the sinful is an unavoidable after-the-fact allusion to carnal acts and their consequence.

While establishing Bhutan's credentials as a movie making country, Norbu is carefully setting up road signs to maintain moral boundaries. So long as he's the patrolman, nothing is going to veer outside the straight and narrow. The film is a combination of worldly awareness within the safety of taboo restrictions.

For all that, it's a pleasant journey that treats us to a glimpse of a little-visited pocket of humanity living a mostly genial life with low energy issues. The glimpse into this landscape and benign culture contains enough simple charm and moral comfort to make up for its lack of gripping power or dramatic muscle.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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