Oh Life (There Must Be More)
This week, we travel back through time to meet Tibet’s most celebrated yogi and poet, around whom legends abound of his magical prowess. Technically, it should be the entry for Bhutan, but the self-proclaimed Happiest Nation On Earth has no need of a film industry. It does however produce film-makers, and doubtless the tale of Milarepa is as much a part of Bhutanese folklore as it is in Tibet.
We also travel briefly to Bouvet Island to explore its extraterrestrial film connections and why the Norwegians are in no hurry to exploit the furthest outpost of their borders.
First up though, revenge and mysticism in the epic retelling of:
(2006) Written by Neten Chokling & Tenzing Noyang Gyari Directed by Neten Chokling
“If you are many, make war. If you are few, make sorcery!”
Milarepa is a film adaptation of one of Tibet’s most famous ancient legends, based loosely upon the life and teachings of a Buddhist yogi and poet (in his youth known as Thöpaga) who lived in the 11th Century. Born to wealthy parents, Thöpaga’s father dies young, allowing his greedy siblings to spirit away the family inheritance. Near-destitute, Thöpaga and his mother struggle to eke out a living until the mother eventually snaps and compels her son to learn sorcery so as to inflict revenge on their malefactors. However, the boy quickly discovers that revenge comes with its own price. This film chronicles the early years of this now-revered figure, and is very much within the fantasy genre, playing as it does with the myths and the melodrama surrounding the character, though his principal teachings sit at the core of the plot, which have been a source of inspiration to generations. New to the tale of Milarepa, I found myself generally enjoying this big-screen retelling, despite certain issues I had with its execution.
It seemed fairly apparent that this is a film preaching to the choir, as it were, with many sequences flying along as if obligatory shorthand for an audience already familiar with the story, but a little too rushed for anyone else. To those unfamiliar, the early sections of the film in particular seem like edited highlights that required more time and build-up to achieve maximum impact. For example, the introduction where Thöpaga’s father dies and the siblings show their true colours is a very few minutes in length and family ruin consequently achieved at a whirlwind pace. Storywise, the key elements are intact, but the sometimes choppy pacing and rapid jumps forward in time prevent sufficient character development, an essential process in lending believability to what is after all pure fantasy. It’s clear that director Neten Chokling is keen to get to the sorcery element, thereby relying on several sequences of over-the-top melodrama within the family to sell the desire for revenge. Again, if you’re familiar with the story and know what’s coming, this is doubtless not such a problem.
Indeed, once Thöpaga does set off on the road on his voyage of discovery, the fantasy element really takes over and the adventure begins in earnest. All throughout Milarepa, the audience is treated to some truly breathtaking Himalayan scenery – surely one of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. Here at the Roof of the World, it truly does seem as though magic could determine the fates of man, and the backdrop does much to sell the story. Yogic strongholds sit precariously atop mountains and seem to dominate the magnificent valleys below. Here, Thöpaga must travel to seek the otherworldly skills that will let him inflict revenge, which his masters seem quite keen to impart. It almost seems irresponsible, yet Buddhism is after all about passing on knowledge rather than judging how the beholder will use it.
“This is a film preaching to the choir, as it were, with many sequences flying along as if obligatory shorthand for an audience already familiar with the story.”
After all, while mastery of the self is the Buddhist philosophy, Milarepa is very much about karmic retribution, which its central character painfully learns must flow in both directions. The ‘sorcery’ of the film is realised through a surprising amount of cgi that takes the film very much into cartoon territory, but this is after all a retelling of the legend rather than a biopic, and if you’re going to delve into the mythology, you may as well go all the way. Perhaps because the earlier scenes had been so ‘comic book’ in structure, I found myself very much in the right frame of mind when the visual effects appeared and if anything, this is where my enjoyment properly set in.
It does mean that those hoping for a deeply spiritual Buddhist epic on the folly of conflict will be disappointed – the message is there intact, but in very much the same way that it was in Monkey Magic. Whether or not this makes Jamyang Lodro’s portrayal of the young Thöpaga a little too close to Hayden Christiansen’s Anakin Skywalker is up to the viewer to decide, as is the question of whether or not Chokling’s approach to his subject matter is out of a desire to make Milarepa into Tibet’s answer to Tolkien. Either way, Lodro plays the troubled youth convincingly and is helped by several other good performances, most notably Orgen Tobgyal, as his willing yogic master – apparently also the film’s art director.
Thöpaga’s real-life alter ego would famously recount years later that he had been very foolish in his youth and faced a long path to wisdom (‘How senseless to disregard one’s life by fighting foes who are but frail flowers’). His voyage to maturity and enlightenment is purportedly the focus of the sequel, which at this stage, is long overdue. This therefore means that Milarepa does not have a strong ending – so much of the story is yet to be told, and hopefully Chokling will succeed in bringing it to light. In that event, the film will doubtless be better evaluated as simply the opening chapter of a much larger tale – one of reckless youth, in which mistakes are made that lead to wisdom in the wise. This does not absolve it of its cartoon fantasy leanings, but as my introduction into the world of this highly celebrated Tibetan spiritual leader, it was an entertaining enough ride.
A Grue Of Ice: Bouvet Island
In the previous ‘series’ of reviews, I occasionally made mention of those places not altogether known for their film industries. The Aland Islands for example, are inhabited by a people far too happy to spend time developing a film industry and, some might argue, far too small. Travel a little further south, where the word ‘little’ can barely stay on the page due to being weighed down by understatement, and you have Bouvet Island, an altogether different case. So far, it has been highly successful in fending off attempts at human habitation, the secret of its success being boiled down to three basic ingredients: one, it is so far south that any forms of life more complex than bacteria have a tendency to freeze to death rather quickly; two, it is so far away from civilization that Microsoft can’t reach it; and three, it is a small glacier-covered volcano prone to avalanches.
Unlike the Aland Islands however, there is a film connection. What was once obscurely described as a ‘grue of ice’ by pulp writer Geoffrey Jenkins was the setting for the 2004 sci-fi film, Alien Vs. Predator. In the story, the Bouvet massif is the battleground between the two aggressive extra-terrestrial races, and the first time the two franchises united, effectively making them part of the same universe. Although shot somewhere less volcanic and not at all prone to impromptu avalanches, AVP is, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the one and only film set on Bouvet Island, or Bouvetøya, as it is referred to by Norway, within whose territory it currently falls.
Unsurprisingly, no-one has stepped forward to alter the status quo.
In his lifetime, Sigmund Freud famously contended that the sexual desire was the prime motivator of all human behaviour. No matter how evolved our minds, no matter how far we advanced the human condition, it all came down to sex. Our social groups are defined by dominant sexual predators and their submissive victims. Yet the predator may only rule in a microcosm, becoming a victim when he or she steps outside its boundaries into the wider world. Join World On Film next time for the brutally-honest analysis of Freudian social dynamics next time in the Bolivian-U.S co-production, Sexual Dependency. The trailer below is not subtitled I’m afraid, but you’ll get the idea.