MILAREPA: MAGICIAN, MURDERER, SAINT
(director/writer: Neten Chokling; screenwriter: Tenzing Choyang Gyari; cinematographer: Paul Warren; editor: Suzy Elmiger; music: Joel Diamond; cast: Jamyang Lodro (Thopaga/Milarepa, Age 16), Tenpa Choephel (Mila, father), Orgyen Tobgyal (Yungton Trogyel, sorcerer), Kelsang Chukie Tethtong (Kargyen, mother), Jamyang Nyima (Dharma Wangchuk, son of the sorcerer), Tashi Lhamo (Peta), Lhakpa Tsamchoe (Aunt Peydon), Gonpo (Uncle Gyaltsen), Tashi Choedon Gyari (Zesay), Dechen Wangmo (Thopaga, Age 7), Khenpo Lobsang Tenzing Rinpoche (Old Monk); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Raymond Steiner; Cinequest; 2006-Bhutan-in Tibetan with English subtitles)
“Earnestly capturing in spirit the emergence of a holy man.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Bhutanese lama Neten Chokling is the young man who acted in The Cup and here he has his directorial debut. It’s a spirited didactic spiritual message movie that’s a partial biopic from the formative years of Tibet’s most revered yogi and saint, the 11th century mystic who renounced his early years of violent revenge through sorcery for enlightenment and changed his childhood name of Thopaga (Joyful News) to Milarepa (1043-1123)–Mila being his father’s name and repa meaning cotton cloth. It’s beautifully shot in northern India, on the Tibetan border in the Spiti Valley, which serves as the locale for Milarepa’s birthplace in the rural village of Kya Ngatsa along Mt. Tisi in western Tibet. The acting is by Tibetan monks (from the Pema Ewam Choegar Gyurmeling Monastery in India and Tibet) and nonprofessionals, who might give authentic performances but their acting is stilted. The execution of the story is awkward, nevertheless despite its crude dramatics and unpolished acting it makes up for that by earnestly capturing in spirit the emergence of a holy man and poet, one of the greatest men of faith to have ever lived and Tibet’s greatest spiritual teacher. It serves as a good introduction to Tibetan Buddhism for the uninitiated and for the more knowing it reinforces the strong sense of faith Milarepa’s story has meant over the years to the followers of Tibetan Buddhism
In Garma Chang’s classic translation of Milarepa’s devotional poetry, entitled The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, one of the poems goes like this:
If one experiences ‘now’ and ‘then’ as the same, he touches Reality.
If one feels no difference between sleep and waking, he learns the Practice.
If one equates pain and pleasure he comes to Realization.
If one identifies the Self-mind with Buddhahood, he reaches The Supreme Enlightenment.
The conventional storytelling tells of the 7-year-old Thopaga’s (Dechen Wangmo as 7-year-old/Jamyang Lodro as a 16-year-old) wealthy father (Tenpa Choephel) dying unexpectedly and on his deathbed telling his brother Gyaltsen (Gonpo) and his wife Peydon (Lhakpa Tsamchoe) to look after the widow Kargyen (Kelsang Chukie Tethtong) and their son Thopaga and daughter Peta (Tashi Lhamo) until the son has grown of age and marries Zesay (Tashi Choedon Gyari), the village girl promised as his bride. Thopaga’s uncle and aunt are venal characters who place their charges into their servitude and steal Kargyen’s inheritance and renege on their promise to give back the inheritance to Thopaga when he’s 16, which forces the impoverished family into starvation. To get revenge, Kargyen sells her field to get money to give Thopaga a valuable jewel to present to a master sorcerer (Orgyen Tobgyal), living in a mountain retreat, as payment to learn black magic. The straight-arrow Thopaga returns to the village and with his new sorcery powers it enables him to create a storm to topple the houses on his evil relatives and kill many in his family who sided with his evil uncle and aunt. But even though this vengeance gladdens the heart of his mother, it seems wrong to Thopaga and he returns to the master sorcerer for new directions only to be sent to find the great guru Marpa to learn how to save lives and not kill. The film leaves off at this point, showing Thopaga as a youth searching for the proper way to live his life without violence. But not before a wise old recluse monk (Khenpo Lobsang Tenzing Rinpoche) tells the future Buddhist sage: “Cease negative actions, cultivate positive actions, and tame your mind.”
REVIEWED ON 11/5/2008 GRADE: A-