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.
This week, a good example of what happens in World On Film when a country of the week isn’t really known for its film industry and I have to find something to talk about. Travel in dubious fashion with me to Bermuda, where we discover why 1966 is the best time to visit, before spending 90 minutes hunting giant turtles while being bewitched by mysterious women.
First though, just a reminder that you can search through this blog’s past history to see what else has been covered through a variety of widgets all to be found at the bottom of the page.
Now, it’s time to away the anchor and set a course:
(1966) The Bermuda Trade Development Board
Safe harbour in Mid-Atlantic, this speck of Mother Earth rimmed round by the great sea, Bermuda: 600 miles from anyplace else.
As the name suggests, Destination Bermuda is a travel documentary produced by the Bermuda Trade Development Board back in the days when the island colony was still Devonshire tea British. While it’s a little unusual for this blog given the nature of the piece, it certainly unveils the Caribbean outpost in all its glory. And yet, it is also the glory of a bygone age, the Bermuda of yesteryear – the unintentional sepia of another world, where it’s almost impossible to imagine it as a serious contemporary invitation to inbound tourism.
Never far from the ocean, the land is carved and shaped to the purposes of the golfer, who seeks the therapy of a club, a ball and 18 holes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Destination Bermuda presents the colony as an island resort, wherein the citizens are chiefly concerned with suntans, cycling and golf scores. The fish are so abundant that all one need do is drop an unbaited hook beneath the waves and within minutes, snapper the size of dinner plates helpfully impale themselves upon them in the hope they’ll see their own bodies caramelizing in a frying pan with their last dying convulsions. Men group together upon the rooftops of their shining white houses tossing back the house red after a solid day’s tiling, while the band of the Bermuda regiment regularly parade up and down Saint George in the interests of being vacuously British. Anyone with skin darker than a communion wafer is little more than a colourful addition to the periphery – a reminder that London is many leagues and latitudes distant.
“[The film depicts] the glory of a bygone age, the Bermuda of yesteryear – the unintentional sepia of another world.”
While the fashions and architecture of the day are obvious signs of dating, for me, it was the post-production of Destination Bermuda that really ages it. The rather paternal narration, a sequence of overdramatic lines attempting to be poetic, is delivered in that very measured and deep 60s tone. Ironically, an American artiste provides the voiceover, although as he says himself, Bermuda is a mere “90 minutes from New York”. Likewise the overblown musical score, in true 60s fashion, still clings to the silent film convention of a constant soundtrack, aggressively punctuating the departure of cruise ships with a full orchestra as though they were on their way to Pearl Harbour. The other half of the time, it’s a relentless barrage of harmonica ditties reminding anyone somehow unable to interpret the long band of blue on screen that Bermuda is a sea-based habitat. When one sequence literally broke into Tommy Reilly’s theme from The Navy Lark, I knew I’d been beaten. I half-expected to see one Chief Petty Officer Pertwee wandering up and down Hamilton high street trying to flog off contraband watches. Subtlety, it seems, has never been appreciated in the tourism industry.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy Destination Bermuda. Its lively, slightly bombastic promotion of the country was all the more entertaining precisely because of its dated production values. It fails in its raison d’etre with a modern audience, but gains new meaning as a period piece. And while the Bermuda of 2010 is obviously a far different place with the dimming of Empire and the change in attitudes and technology, the landscape remains intact, as would the relaxed ‘island culture’ of the place. I left the film having little desire to visit it as it was, but curious to see what it has become.
The airlines don’t promise it and your travel agent can’t swear to it, but somehow, your pilot always manages to show you these islands before you land, for Bermuda perhaps, is a special destination.
Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?
Travel Film Archive has made the program available to watch via YouTube, so check it out here:
Tourism is all very well, but for me, there was one very iconic Bermuda-themed film from my childhood, involving star-crossed lovers, oceanographers, and giant turtles. Whether it really fits within the blog’s remit is debatable, but it could only be:
The Bermuda Depths
(1978) Written by William Overgard & Arthur Rankin Jr. Directed by Tsugunobo Katani
A young man returns to Bermuda hoping to discover why his father died 13 years earlier and becomes entranced by a mysterious young woman who turns out to be the childhood friend who disappeared into the sea that same day. Somehow, she is connected to his father’s strange fate, but the answers lie out there, in the Devil’s Triangle.
I first saw The Bermuda Depths many years ago and while the plot had faded from memory long since, there was something about it – an atmosphere, perhaps – that remained with me. A recent reviewing went some way toward explaining this, although it also suggested that my tastes were probably less demanding back then. What I see now is a film that has not aged well, unraveled in its designs by bad acting, dreadful special effects and a premise that proves effective only while under the influence of valium. The nonsense of the Bermuda Triangle too was perhaps more alluring in 1978, but seems painfully artificial now, perhaps because the coast guards of the region have been trying to get it through to people that nowhere near as many ships disappear in the area as pop culture would maintain, and those that have did so with a far more mundane explanation than some want to believe.
Others may suggest I’m missing the point of course, and The Bermuda Depths rides high on the wave of piffle the previous decades have built up surrounding this supposedly supernatural island chain. Throw in an emotionally-damaged young man, a family tragedy, an attractive siren in a black swimsuit and legends of archelonian leviathans, and herein is the tale intended to ensnare us from the distractions of logic. Well-done, these elements should come together to form an intriguing mystery and a haunting story of star-crossed love, but the delivery is off both before and behind the camera.
The central character of Magnus Dens, for example, is potentially the most intriguing. Dens, we learn, is an aimless drifter, orphaned by the tragic loss of his parents and directionless as a result. Upon returning to Bermuda, he finds himself entranced by a woman invisible to everyone but the local ‘wise woman’ who places her existence within the framework of a centuries-old curse. Rejecting the madness of the one person who believes him, Dens is treated with pitied sympathy by his friends, certain his crumbling psychological state is torturing him with the hallucinations of an imaginary friend. This, to me, demonstrates wonderful scope on the part of the lead that should lend true anguish and drama to the conflict. Unfortunately, actor Leigh McClosky brings this complex character to life with all the energy of a deflating balloon, his languid stares and lethargic movement interrupted at times by over-the-top aggression meant to signal an unleashing of his inner turmoil, but coming across as two-dimensional overexcitement. While I have no problem with the supporting cast, their efforts cannot make up for McClosky’s inability to act. Even the lovely Connie Sellecca’s superior performance as the almost spectral seductress Jennie – a subtle miasma of innocence and eternal regret – can only do so much when this is whom she must play against, although it’s likely no coincidence that it is with her that McClosky gives his best performances, Sellecca seemingly bringing out in him capabilities elsewhere hidden from view.
“[The Bermuda Depths] is a film that has not aged well, unraveled in its designs by bad acting, dreadful special effects and a premise that proves effective only while under the influence of valium.”
That said, William Overgard’s script clearly isn’t interested in being the character study it ought to in favour of a shallow pastiche of ‘Moby Dick’ vying for time with the elements of unrequited love. There’s no reason we can’t have both, but efforts to champion one direction come at the cost of another, perhaps in a desire to provide spectacle. This unfortunately is where the film’s low budget really becomes evident, with some very cheap and unconvincing model shots, special effects and atrocious day-for-night shooting , which admittedly I don’t recall being such glaring problems 20 years ago. The Bermuda Depths is one of those films that holds together far better not simply in the distant past when it was made, but in that hazy distance of memory, which over time smooths out the inconsistencies. It’s a little like being reunited with your first love and finding that much of what you recall about it has been rose-tinted in the years since.
The soundtrack too is an odd mish-mash of styles reflecting the shifting, unevenness of the plot. A haunting period theme song suggests temptation and seduction, giving way to a recurring (and indeed familiar) classical guitar motif, both of which must coexist with a strange retro thriller score that reminded me at times of orchestrations Malcolm Lockyer was creating in 60s sci-fi matinees. The final element of what one today might call ‘muzak’ fills out the dramatic downtime. The overall lack of coherence suggests the differing perspectives behind the scenes and a loss of clarity.
One thing that has not suffered from the passage of time, however, is the location itself. All exterior scenes were shot in Bermuda and its sleepy urban landscape, powder-white beaches flanked by picturesque rocky outcrops and azure sea go a long way toward compensating for other deficiencies. The local government, credited for assisting in the making of the film, would doubtless have seen it as an enticing travel promotion and deservedly so – it certainly worked on me. The natural landscape lends itself perfectly to the storyline and ultimately, it is only the artificial enhancements of post-production, weak plotting and character development that don’t stand up to scrutiny – especially to a modern audience.
Ultimately, these are the dangers of revisiting the past and the way it is often defeated by the ravages of time and the changes we undergo as a result. Ironically, this mirrors The Bermuda Depths rather well. The film itself is the beckoning siren, luring the rose-tinted memories of an ageing audience toward potential heartbreak, and like the ancient mariners, I failed to lash myself to the mast in time.
Coming Up Next
Bhutan is another nation not known for its film industry, but it does produce film directors. One of them fairly recently produced Milarepa, famous Tibetan poet and yogi of the 11th and 12th Centuries, whose early life was fraught with poverty, misery and anger until he learned to rise above it. While the man himself was entirely real, the legends surrounding him slide into the realm of fantasy and magical melodrama, and it is to this realm that we will be exploring next time.
To view a trailer, click below: