Tibetan political drama too little too late

Dreaming Lhasa

on April 13, 2007 by Mark Keizer
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Dreaming Lhasa, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam's heartfelt but clumsy look into the lives of Tibetan emigres living in India is a victim of, among many things, poor timing. A lot has happened in the world since the first Free Tibet bumper stickers found their way onto university backpacks. Tibet has taken a backseat to 9/11, the Iraq War, global warming and other headline-grabbing liberal causes. While that doesn't mean the people of Tibet don't deserve what they're asking for or that the world shouldn't be reminded of China's dominance over the poor country, it does mean that the filmmakers had better make a great movie so audiences will be moved to reconsider the issue.

Deepa Mehta's Water was so beautifully done that it made us reflect upon injustices against Indian women that have been going on for generations. Atom Egoyan's Ararat managed to reinvigorate the conversation about the Armenian genocide, even though it was a flawed film. Dreaming Lhasa is not nearly as accomplished as those two movies, and it suffers for it.

Sarin and Sonam are Indian-born directors who've worked on numerous nonfiction films about Tibet. Dreaming Lhasa is their first feature, and it shows from the outset in the wooden expository dialogue that establishes the story. Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso) is a New York documentarian of Tibetan ancestry who travels to Dharamsala to interview former Tibetan political prisoners. Dharamsala is the Indian city where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, and while there she meets Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), an ex-monk on a quest to fulfill his mother's dying wish to deliver a charm box to a man named Loga. Karma and Dhondup then embark on a journey to transport what is essentially a MacGuffin to its mysterious owner. They are occasionally accompanied by Jigme (Tenzin Jigme), a guitar-playing local who completes what ends up being a poorly realized love triangle.

The problem is that Sarin and Sonam, adept at capturing real emotions conveyed by real people, are unable to create them from scratch. There is no energy in the storytelling, and Gyatso, an attractive novice trying her best, is easy prey for the awkward dialogue. A handful of scenes show Karma on the phone with her Stateside family, a relationship that sounds strained but is never satisfactorily explored. However, it does illustrate how strongly America looms over the lives of young Tibetans. Many of Sonam's characters dream of escaping to America, and even Jigme fears that Dhondup is only using Karma for a green card. But here, the movie only fitfully sells the most interesting thing it has to say.

Tibetan refugees have multiple national identities. Many live in India while dreaming of a better life in the West . Others, like Karma, are Americanized but crave reconnection with Tibetan roots. Still more live in India with hopes of returning to Tibet. It's a rootless and burdened Diaspora, and Dhondup, sometimes through song, reminds the locals that their lives are incomplete until they return to their rightful, ancestral home.

About an hour into the film, things threaten to improve when Dhondup finally opens the damn charm box. Inside he finds a cyanide capsule and uncovers a little-known front in Tibet's war for independence. Turns out, Loga was a CIA-trained Tibetan freedom fighter who fought a guerilla war against the Chinese. But even this revelation has no dramatic weight, a too-often occurrence in a film that strings together escalating revelations until the whooper at the end.

The movie does feel authentic, a result of shooting on location and having a grasp of the locals, the t-shirts they wear, the streets they walk and the ringtones they prefer. Sarin and Sonam mostly avoid showcasing the beauty of India, a justifiable choice considering most characters would just as soon leave the country for Tibet. But, as political statements go, Dreaming Lhasa is gentle, well-meaning and produced 10 years too late and three drafts too soon. Distributor: First Run
Cast: Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso, Tenzin Jigme and Jampa Kalsang
Directors: Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam
Screenwriter: Tenzing Sonam
Producer: Ritu Sarin
Genre: Drama; English- and Tibetan-language, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: April 13, 2007 NY, June 22 SF

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