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Movie review: 'Monk' challenges views of Tibet

January 3, 2009

Jonathan Curiel, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, January 2, 2009
 
Angry Monk: Reflections on Tibet: Documentary. Directed and written by Luc Schaedler. In Tibetan and English, with English subtitles. (Not rated. 97 minutes. At the Roxie.)
 
In a poll of Americans taken five months ago, the vast majority of respondents said Tibet should be an independent country. Of those questioned, only 14 percent said Tibet should be part of China, which has ruled over the Himalayan territory for five decades.
 
Tibet makes headlines whenever China cracks down on Tibetan dissidents or whenever the Dalai Lama meets with world leaders, but documentarian Luc Schaedler wants people to consider Tibet in a radically different way - as a historic plateau whose old Buddhist leaders were intransigent to internal change, as a place of religious prominence that both liberated and betrayed a martyred monk, and as a modern land of new-wave clubs where Chinese and Tibetans reluctantly - but peacefully - coexist.
 
"Angry Monk" uses rarely seen archival footage - and inspiring new images - to present a full arc of Tibetan history. It also employs a travelogue style that is both engaging and distracting. Especially in the beginning, when we journey with Schaedler without knowing his background (he's a visual anthropologist) or his motivation, "Angry Monk" meanders, but if Schaedler's documentary requires patience, it's worth the payoff. The "angry monk" in question is Gendun Choephel - a liquor-imbibing, sex-talking Tibetan rebel who seems the antithesis of the calm and rational Dalai Lama.
 
How angry was Choephel? Although he apparently never took up arms, he belonged in the early 1940s to a group called the Tibetan Revolutionary Party, which advocated overthrowing Tibet's Buddhist leadership. Choephel, who designed the group's logo (a sickle crossed by a sword), was eventually thrown in Tibet's prison system, where he remained for three dispiriting years.
 
Before his incarceration by Tibetan authorities, Choephel translated the Kama Sutra into the Tibetan language, based on his decade of living and traveling in India, where he was known to have relations with prostitutes. Throughout his life, Choephel openly questioned then-Tibetan Buddhist doctrine about disengaging from the outside world. From long-forgotten documents that were rediscovered in his lifetime, Choephel wrote a political history of Tibet that radically reinterpreted Tibet's relationship to China. Only recently has Choephel's legacy been lionized by Tibetan historians. Choephel died in 1951.
 
"(Choephel) dared to question tradition," says one person interviewed on camera. "In his time, he didn't achieve much. But at least he had the courage to act." Adding his own verbal coda, Schaedler says that "in recent years, for many Tibetans, he's become an important figure of identification. For me, he's a kind of key to Tibet."
 
Fifty years after Choephel's death, the monk's political history book is still popular in Tibet - perhaps more so now than ever before. Without question, Choephel's life of wanderlust and revolution is worth cinematic study, and for moviegoers with even a smattering of interest in and understanding of Tibet, "Angry Monk" will be an eye-opener.
 
Schaedler's film raises as many questions as he answers. At one point, Schaedler describes the Tibetan leaders of Choephel's time as fundamentalist. Though Schaedler doesn't adequately explain his supposition, Choephel succeeds at relaying a shadow side of Tibet - a bridge between the romantic Tibet of yesteryear (a kind of imagined Shangri-La) and the militarized Tibet that regularly shows up on TV news clips.
 
-- Advisory: Violent images, strong language about sex.
 
E-mail Jonathan Curiel at jcuriel@sfchronicle.com.
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