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TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS (director/writer: Khyentse Norbu; cinematographer: Alan Kozlowski; editors: Lisa-Anne Morris/John Scott; cast: Tshewang Dendup (Dondup), Sonam Kinga (the Monk), Lhakpa Dorji (Tashi), Deki Yangzom (Deki), Gomchen Penjore (Agay), Namgay Dorjee (Karma), Sonam Lhamo (Sonam), Dasho Adab Sangye (Sonam’s Father), Ap Dochu (Appleman), Dechen Dorjee (Drunk Man); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Raymond Steiner/Malcolm Watson; Zeitgeist Films; 2003-Bhutan-in Dzongkha, with English subtitles)
“All Norbu’s posturing for a greater spiritual meaning never materialized, though it still looms as an assured work.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Buddhist monk turned filmmaker Khyentse Norbu (“The Cup”) has the honor of having his enchanting cautionary fable “Travellers & Magicians” become the first feature film made in the monarchy of Bhutan. It’s filmed in Super 16mm by cinematographer Alan Kozlowski, whose fine location shots capture the magnificent vistas of the Himalayan mountainsides. The only fault I have with the filming, is that I found the subtitles too small to read.

The nonprofessional cast acquits themselves well, offering naturalistic performances that add to the film’s warmth and charm. The narrative mainly focuses on the conflicts between traditional and Western values, as the lure of materialism is sometimes too tempting to resist for those who have unrealistic dreams.

Norbu’s spiritual message is grounded in a tale of self-discovery for a young restless soul, Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), who is bored with his current new position as a minor government official in the remote Bhutan village of Chendebji and dreams of greener pastures in America–where he can make more money as an apple picker in half a day than what he gets paid now for a week. Also, there are more beautiful women, nightclubs, restaurants and rock ‘n’ roll. The long-haired bohemian styled, Nike and T-shirt wearing “I Love New York,” cigarette smoking, boombox player of loud western rock music, city boy, Dondup, requests leave from his position to attend a religious festival in Thimphu (Bhutan’s capital). His ulterior plan is to meet a friend who promises a visa and a flight to his dreamland (America)–the “land of opportunity.” When Dondup misses the bus, he’s left stranded but is joined on the road by a serene appleman and a jolly monk (Sonam Kinga). The monk mocks the young man’s restlessness, and to pass the time and settle the young man down so he can change his mind he tells him a magical folklore story that relates to his situation. The story about a lazy magical student named Tashi continues as they pick up rides along the way while hitch-hiking. Things suddenly change for Dondup when he falls for a beautiful 19-year-old girl named Sonam (Sonam Lhamo), who joins the travelers. She and her elderly single father, a rice-paper maker, are returning to Dondup’s village but are stopping off first to sell their product in Thimphu. By the time they all get a chance to reach their destination, the young man is not certain if what he hoped for the other day is what he wants now. The monk’s tale is also completed in a bizarre ending as Tashi’s wanton passion leads him down a wrong path–as Tashi mysteriously in yearnings to escape to greener pastures takes up with an elderly loner named Agay and romances his beautiful younger wife Deki. To secure Deki, the young man attempts to poison her husband but things backfire. This parallel tale, told in a not too subtle way, is to be a reminder to Dondup to pay attention to the present and not dream foolish thoughts that could lead you astray.

As an instructive moral lesson it works fine, for those so inclined. But dramatically it fails to hold together because of its lackadaisical pacing, too straightforward of a spiritual message and the two tales supposedly woven together never seem to really come together with the same objective force despite Norbu’s intention of having them reach the same conclusion. I came away thinking that it wasn’t the implications of the story, of a restless mind led astray, that got to Dondup, that led to his change of mind, but it was just the coincidence that he fell for a babe and that’s where he was at in the first place. That all Norbu’s posturing for a greater spiritual meaning never materialized, though it still looms as an assured work.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”