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TV review: "Mustang: Journey of Transformation"

November 18, 2009

David Wiegand, Chronicle Staff Writer (dwiegand@sfchronicle.com)
The San Francisco Chronicle
November 17, 2009

"Mustang: Journey of Transformation":
Documentary. By Will Parrinello. Narrated by
Richard Gere. 10 p.m. today on KQED, with encore screenings on KQED.

A restored Buddha in "Mustang: Journey of
Transformation."Right: Artisans and farmers
restore a Mustang monastery m... View Larger Images

One nearly surefire way to know if a film is very
good is wishing it were twice as long. At 30
minutes, it's astounding how much Bay Area
filmmaker Will Parrinello tells us in "Mustang:
Journey of Transformation," airing tonight on
KQED. At the same time, his film will leave you
wanting to know even more about this land that time forgot.

Although Mustang (which is pronounced neither
like the horse nor the car, but, rather, as
"MOOSE-tahng") is in northern Nepal, its
once-rich culture is Tibetan. Centuries ago, it
was an important trading-route stop and its
thriving economy enabled the construction of
exquisite Buddhist monasteries in the capital
city of Lo Manthang and even in the smallest
villages (although the capital itself has more
goats and horses than its 1,000 human residents).

But for 50 years, the kingdom was cut off from
the rest of the world, resulting in a physical
deterioration of the monasteries and perhaps an
even more serious deterioration of culture among
the people, who lost connection with their Tibetan heritage.

And given the very real threat to that heritage
in Chinese-occupied Tibet itself, several groups
and individuals, including the American Himalayan
Foundation and restoration architect John Sanday,
rode to the rescue after Nepal opened its border with Mustang in 1991.

Although the kingdom's problems included
illiteracy and poverty, the raja, or king, of
Mustang wisely prioritized restoring the
monasteries, once the border was reopened.
Parrinello's film (narrated, of course, by
Richard Gere) details how Sanday oversaw the
repair of the monasteries and taught Mustang
farmers how to help clean the breathtaking artwork inside.

The brevity of the film leaves us with more
questions than answers about the culture of
Mustang. And while the happy ending is evident
early on in the film, we can't help wondering
what lies ahead for the tiny nation on the
Himalayan plateau. Literacy in the Tibetan
language is being restored, and the
rehabilitation of the monasteries has spurred the
hoped-for cultural revival as well.

Still, we find ourselves wanting to know about
the country's political and economic potential.
In short, the one quibble you're likely to have
with "Mustang: Journey of Transformation" is that
it's too little of a good thing.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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