Bhutan: Travellers and Magicians

(2003; dir: Khyentse Norbu; language: Dzongkha; original title: ཆང་ཧུབ་ཐེངས་གཅིག་གི་འཁྲུལ་སྣང)

Travellers and Magicians is a good title for this story-within-a-story. The outer story follows a collection of travellers in the beautiful mountainous landscape of rural Bhutan, as they all for various reasons wend their slow way towards the capital, Thimpu. One of them, a Buddhist monk, tells a fable-like story about an impetuous young magic student who loses himself in a forest and becomes entangled in a web of lust and threat. The film was written and directed by Norbu (also known as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche), a Bhutanese Buddhist lama and director of another international hit The Cup. I chose Travellers and Magicians as it is Bhutan’s first feature film, and because it is supposedly a film much anchored in Bhutanese culture.

The film begins in a small rural village in Bhutan, where we meet Dondup (Tshewang Dendup). Dondup is a public official who has recently been assigned to the village, and he is bored to tears. Long-haired Dondup loves all things Western, and sees the United States as the land of his dreams where scantily-clad women, American music and riches await. When the chance of a work visa to the United States arrives he rushes off in a very un-Bhutanese manner, bound for the sole bus connection to Thimpu and determined to get to the capital before the offer expires. Slowed down and frustrated by various well-meaning villagers, Dondup misses the bus and is forced to hitchhike. While waiting for rides, Dondup is gradually joined by a humble and nearly silent apple-seller, a gregarious monk (Sonam Kinga), a carousing drunk, and an elderly rice-paper maker and his beautiful young daughter Sonam (Sonam Lhamo). Travelling together in various constellations over a couple of days and nights, the monk spins a tale in installments about another hot-headed young man who longed to leave village life behind him. Inspired by a Bhuddist fable, the monk’s story follows Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji) who finds his heart’s desire deep in the forest in the form of a gorgeous women Deki (Deki Yangzom). Unfortunately Deki is married to a jealous (and abusive) old man who stands in the way of Deki and Tashi’s budding relationship.

I thought that the concept of the film was an appealing one – a mixture of a road movie and fairy tale – and both storylines made excellent use of the stunning scenery of Bhutan, from mountain to forest. Dondup made for an amusing protagonist with his sneakers, boom-box, denim gho (Bhutanese garment), and his undeserved arrogance. Although the film’s message wasn’t a subtle one – learn to appreciate your own place instead of chasing after castles in the air – it was allowed to evolve gently and humorously, and Dondup’s fate (like that of his companions) is left unresolved.

Although clearly aimed at a Western audience, presumably riding on the success of Norbu’s previous film The Cup, the message of the film touches on something I can well believe is an issue for Bhutan, and indeed many other countries: the fleeing of youth from ‘traditional’ ways of life in the country to the attractions of city-living or even to foreign countries. Certainly successive Bhutanese governments have taken weighty legislative steps towards ‘securing’ Bhutanese culture – legislation which raises a lot of ethical questions for a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country, and which has led to disturbing human rights abuses. On the one hand, the film’s message of valuing what you have is an easy one to sympathise with, as is the country’s pioneering concept of Gross Domestic Happiness (instead of GDP). On  the other, the film rings somewhat false considering the number of Bhutanese refugees who actually have fled to the US and elsewhere because ethnic discrimination in Bhutan rendered them stateless and without access to many basic human rights.

Another aspect of the film that I found a tad grating was how much of a boy’s film it was. The two female roles in the film, Sonam and Deki, both seemed to exist solely as a sexual/romantic lure for each story’s male protagonist. Deki is the object of Tashi’s fantasies and is the impetus for his moral journey. Sonam embodies the allure of domesticity and village life that just might tempt Dondup into staying in Bhutan, and thus is key to his moral journey. In this sense they can be seen as props, existing to help develop the male protagonists, rather than developing as characters in their own right. I wanted to know how Deki ended up in her horrible marriage, and why Tashi didn’t take any action to stop her abuse (other than fantasising about removing his rival and claiming Deki for himself)? I wanted to know more about Sonam’s decision to abandon her education in order to support her father, and how she felt about that. But the unhappy positions of these women were just taken for granted. (However, the fact that before their respective suitors turned up, both Sonam and Deki’s lives revolved around caring for an old man is perhaps less a problem related to the film and more a problem in Bhutanese society: according to UN Women, Bhutanese women are in reality faced with major domestic burdens.)

In sum, this film offers a beautiful glimpse of a country that is among the less accessible in Asia. Travellers and Magicians showcases traditional Bhutanese dress, music and sports (archery), as well as a pervasive (Buddhist?) laissez-faire mentality of contentedness and appreciating what’s around you. I’ve mentioned a couple of gripes regarding the film’s narrative treatment of women, and how the film’s message is something of a slap in the face to Bhutanese refugees, but otherwise it was an enjoyable mix of spell-binding cinematography, gentle humour, and simplistic moral lessons.

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