Travellers and Magicians Movie Review
The first film to come out of the mysterious and beautiful kingdom of Bhutan, Travellers follows a frustrated and America-obsessed government officer Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) as he tries to leave his village and make contact with a connection who will get him to America, his "dreamland," a place where "you can do anything... wash dishes, pick apples, anything." Clomping through the hillside village with an "I Love NY" t-shirt pulled over his traditional garments, he's extremely impatient to leave. Unfortunately, Dondup misses the infrequent bus to town -- a very unlucky circumstance in transportation-starved Bhutan -- and finds himself walking and hitching with his turquoise suitcase hoping he'll make it in time.
But rides are scare, and they get even scarcer when an old apple picker and young and chatty lute-strumming Buddhist monk (Sonam Kinga) start tagging along and cramping his hitchhiking style. Dondup wants nothing to do with them, especially when the merry monk starts teasing him relentlessly. Hey, the monk points out, if Dondup wants to pick apples, he can do that right here in Bhutan. Soon the group numbers five when they're joined by a rice paper maker (Dasho Adab Sangye) and his lovely daughter Sonam (Sonam Lhamo).
To help pass the time as the group's journey stretches out over days, the monk begins to tell a dramatic fable that in some ways mirrors Dondup's quest. At this point, the film starts to cross-cut between the travellers' trip and the fable. In the story within the story we meet Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), a student magician who, while drugged by his brother, rides a wild horse deep into the forest and gets hopelessly lost. Eventually he meets old hermit Agay (Gomchen Penjore) and his beautiful young wife Deki (Deki Yangzom). At first, all Tashi wants to do is get home, but eventually he finds himself ensnared in Deki's sexual trap, and a murder plot evolves. Colored in spooky, washed-out pastels, this part of the movie feels totally different and could probably even stand alone as a pretty decent thriller. The monk definitely knows how to spin a yarn.
Though the fable has no direct connection to Dondup's desire to head for his dreamland, the way the monk tells it -- and the way Norbu shoots it -- create subtle parallels that are fun to watch for and think about. And of course both parts of the movie feature ravishing Himalayan scenery that will have American viewers consulting their travel agents. "I heard Americans don't even know where Bhutan is," comments Sonap. She's right, but maybe not for long. Norbu enjoys creating spectacularly long shots that put his actors in their place in relation to nature. As the tractor carrying some of the travellers rounds a final curve, it's but a small red speck on the lip of an endless valley. America may have many things to offer, but it doesn't have scenery like this.
Aka Travelers and Magicians.
Bhutan you hear me now?