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'Milarepa' preaches to the converted

March 29, 2009

Lama-turned-director Neten Chokling’s debut
feature is an earnest account of the life of a Tibetan Buddhist saint
By Ian Bartholomew, Staff reporter
Taipei Times (Taiwan)
March 27, 2009

In cinematic terms, Bhutan is probably better
known as the location of the highly publicized
and hugely exclusive wedding of Hong Kong movie
legends Carina Lau (???) and Tony Leung Chiu Wai
(???) in July last year, rather than for its own cinematic output.

So while Milarepa is certainly something of a
cinematic curiosity, sadly, this worthy effort
about the early life of the Tibetan Buddhist
saint Milarepa is little else. The film is being
marketed on the back of the relative success of
Khyentse Norbu’s Travelers and Magicians (2003)
on which Neten Chokling served as second-unit director.

The lama-turned-filmmaker makes his own
directorial debut with Milarepa, but in picking
such a worthy, and indeed sacred, subject, he has
jettisoned the humor and cultural interest that
made Travelers such an appealing film despite its lack of cinematic finesse.

While Travelers gained considerable interest from
its depiction of contemporary small-town life in
Bhutan, which few can claim to be familiar with,
Milarepa takes place in a generic Tibet that
might be that of Milarepa’s time (the saint is
said to have died in 1135), or might be that of
today. Chokling sets out to tell his story in a
step-by-step account that has all the narrative
vibrancy of performing the Buddhist equivalent of the stations of the cross.

The story begins with Thopaga’s childhood in a
rich family and its fall into poverty and shame
at the hands of money-grubbing relatives. It then
moves on to the desire for vengeance, which first
grows in his mother’s heart, then is taken up by
the son, who is sent off to learn black magic.
Then there is the terrible act of vengeance
itself, subsequent self-realization, and a desire
to find transcendence. Unfortunately, that’s were
the film stops, with the journey that will turn
Thopaga into the Buddhist saint Milarepa slated
for a sequel, which according to the distributor
will begin production later this year. The best
that can be said is that the director’s total
immersion in his material precludes the peopling
of his film with exotics. He is presenting the
bread and butter of his faith, and for those who
are interested, it is rough but perfectly wholesome fare.

In terms of performance, Milarepa is not without
its moments, and Kelsang Chukie Tethtong as
Kargyen, Thopaga’s mother, makes a real attempt
at acting. There are flashes of naturalism from
the non-professional cast, but on the whole,
performances are rather stilted, and the dialogue
is totally focused on underlining the main moral
points. The desolate magnificence of the Tibetan
plateau, with its temples perched precariously on
the tops of cliffs and its miles of barren scree
and rough bushland are displayed with an
insouciance and tender familiarity that sets the
film apart from the breathless wonder of Western
presentations. Milarepa, for all its faults, is a
good antidote to exotic fluff such as Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997).

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