(director/writer/editor: Paul Wagner; screenwriters: Julia Elliot/Thupten Tsering; cinematographer: Steven Schecter; editor: Tony Black; cast: Dadon (Dolkar), Tenzin Pema (Young Dolkar), Pasang Dolma (Young Pema), Jampa Kelsang (Dorjee), Richard Chang (Duan-ping), Taije Silverman (Amy), Deepak Tserin (Young Dorjee); Runtime: 97; Shadow Distribution; 1998)
“This fictionalized drama (probably preaching to the choir) cannot be judged as other films for its entertainment value alone.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Windhorse takes us right into what is happening in modern Tibet and tells how the Tibetans survive in a country that is not really theirs anymore. It is a well-done and necessary propaganda film (though even its propaganda is nuanced and made lyrical to a large extent). Somehow or other the world has to receive the message from the Tibetans who are undergoing at the hands of their suppressors, the Chinese Communists, a policy of genocide that will probably continue unchecked unless something is done to stop it. This film is one of the ways of getting out this message. Tibet was invaded in 1950 by the Chinese and in 1959 they forced the Dalai Lama into exile, as the Chinese can only offer the reason for what they were doing — the unbelievable explanation that they were liberating the country. Since then there have been over a million Tibetans slaughtered, 6,000 temples ruined, and over 100,000 have fled the country by walking over the dangerous Himalayan terrain. This fictionalized drama (probably preaching to the choir) cannot be judged as other films for its entertainment value alone. If you are seeing this film to be entertained you are in the wrong movie house, though the exquisite natural beauty of the country and the entrancing holy city of Lhasa–and its magical Potala (the largest Buddhist structure in the world) as photographed, are indeed splendid spectacles and make for good viewing.
The brutality perpetrated against the Tibetans is clearly shown as the film will tell its story as humanly as it can through the eyes of one family, and it will show their hardships and disruptions to be symbolic for the sufferings of all Tibetans.
The tragedy starts one day in 1979 when the youngsters Dorjee (Jampa Kelsang when a grownup) and his sister Dolkar (Tibetan-American singer Dadon when a grownup) and their cousin Pema (unnamed when a grownup-what a shame! She gave an emotionally stirring performance) are skipping rope and Dolkar is singing a childhood ballad, and the sibling’s grandfather is suddenly taken from the house by the Chinese soldiers and shot because he protested their rule by hanging a poster that said “Chinese get out of Tibet.”
The story will pick up 18 years later when the three are grown, each choosing different paths. Pema becomes a Buddhist nun; Dolkar a sexy karaoke singer whose Chinese boyfriend is a broadcast official named Duan-ping (Richard Chang). He helps advance her singing career as long as she performs in Chinese and behaves like a lackey, singing songs praising Chairman Mao; while Dorjee remains sullen, unemployed, wasting his time drinking beer, chain-smoking, hanging out with his wise guy friends in a pool hall, and brooding how nothing can be done to save his country and all the while cursing the Chinese. He is compelling as the weary one, not knowing what to do until something tragic happens that brings out his best instincts and transforms him to do what is right. He steals the picture with this gut-wrenching performance.
What changes everything for the family is when Pema is arrested for spontaneously screaming “Free Tibet” in the streets of the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and is beaten to within an inch of her life and then callously returned to the family where she dies; even though, they tried their best to nurse her back to life in their home. This travesty really hits home and shames them into actively supporting the non-violent Tibetan cause for freedom. They are abetted by an American tourist, Amy (Taije Silverman), who speaks Tibetan and has a video camera, and is evidently interested in meeting the “real” Tibetan people.
What is simply amazing is the gentleness of the Tibetans who exhibit no violent tendencies despite all these incidents; and, when you compare them with the barbarian behavior of their Chinese rulers, you can easily see that this is a story of good vs. evil.
It should be noted how the film had to be made secretly when filmed for a week in Tibet (most of the film was shot in Nepal) with a video camera and smuggled out of Tibet (it was shot on digital video and transferred to film), and how some of the actors were in great danger and thereby could not use their real names. It is easy to see why China doesn’t want the truth about its human rights violations known: the murders it commits and its acts of brutality, and its spy system and systematic control over its subjects, or how it refuses to allow the people to even have pictures of the Dalai Lama in their homes and arrests those that do. All this being done to a people who just happen to have a life philosophy filled with compassion and love for everyone.
The film opens and ends on a powerful spiritual note, as you would expect from a people who value so highly their traditional knowledge of Buddhism.
The windhorses are prayer flags on the mountain passes and scraps of paperleft on the ground to be ridden by the wind into the hands of the gods for victory, where each sheet of paper offers such a prayer for freedom. Thereby the spirit world will always be there for the Tibetans, no matter what takes place in the real-world.
Director Wagner and screenwriter Tsering have pulled off a major accomplishment. They made an emotional and a confrontational film, and they made it inside a totalitarian Chinese regime and they got away with it. That makes this a very special film, except for those who feel it lacks drama and cannot forgive the film for urgently wishing to send out its message at the expense of being more “artistic.” But I left the theater with the impression that I was watching a brave people clinging to the belief that they could find in their hearts all the goodness they need to get over this dark spot in their history. I thought it was a well-meaning film that had its exceptional moments, like fully realizing the relationship of Dadon and Duan-ping as symbolic of the possible reconciliation for the two nations. But for now these two lovers slowly come to believe that things are too hostile for them in this setting. Dadon realizes she can’t betray her people and be lured into singing on TV for a big contract, while he knows that he can’t be too vocal in his protest or he will be removed from his position. They both, therefore, must compromise their love because of current affairs.
Does the film reach an audience that doesn’t know the Tibetan situation?
I doubt if it will, but I do hope it does reach a wider American audience. I believe that the cause is just, the acting is first-class, the film is beautifully crafted, and that all people of good faith must stand together and give hope to each other in any small or large way that they can. If this fictionalized film wasn’t about the real life situation in Tibet and had the same mundane story, I could see it being criticized for being too melodramatic. But since the politics of the times indicate that this film does make a difference, so much so that the Chinese government is doing everything in its power to ban it. I therefore think that speaks volumes for how effective this film is as a political vehicle and how its cinematic importance is enhanced by the unflinching bravery of the Tibetan actors and their families still living in Tibet — they are still the subject of untold horrors.
REVIEWED ON 9/24/99 GRADE: B+