Travelers and Magicians (2003)

Review #1,576

Director:  Khyentse Norbu
Cast:  Tshewang Dendup, Sonam Lhamo, Lhakpa Dorji, Deki Yangzom, Sonam Kinga
Plot:  Dondup is eager to leave his Bhutanese village to live the American Dream in the States.  While waiting for transport, he meets a few chaps on the road, including a monk.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Official Selection (Toronto)
Runtime:  108 mins
Rating:  PG (passed clean) for some sensuality
International Sales:  HanWay Films

“Monks and drunks - who can take them seriously?”

The second feature by highly-revered lama Khyentse Norbu is not just a splendid follow-up to the light-hearted and charming The Cup (1999), but a remarkable film in its own right, tracing the Bhutanese director on the ascent, whose cinematic abilities become more polished and assuring here.  Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Travelers and Magicians is many things at once: beautiful, layered and vitalising.  It is certainly very picturesquely-shot, in the mountainous regions of Bhutan no less.  

Scenes of the natural landscape—the winding roads, temples atop hills, dense woods—are like beautiful postcards that move, and a testament to the country’s best-kept secret.  Amid the natural beauty, and living in villages (or in isolation), are the Bhutanese that go on with their lives.  Norbu captures a few of them in transit and brews a story about their camaraderie.  Within this story is also a story within a story, as recounted by a traveling monk whom Dondup, the film’s lead character, meets on the road.

Dondup is a government official posted to a village, who grows tired of the slow-paced (read: unsatisfying) nature of Bhutanese life.  Influenced by American popular culture, he longs to go to the States, the self-proclaimed land of his dreams, and has a rare opportunity to do so with an overseas contact.  But Travelers and Magicians is not about dreaming, despite extended scenes that work like dreams (with their own defining colour hues).  It is about finding something tangible in life, and to let it guide, embrace, and finally, invigorate you.  

A warm but also cautionary tale about the slow erosion of tradition and spirituality, Norbu wants us to remember who we are and how we can be better persons.  And he does it in a way as to poke gentle fun at Buddhist teachings, and this is his masterstroke because the film doesn’t feel like it is religiously preaching anything, nor is it a quintessential Buddhist tale.

Travelers and Magicians works well as both a humanist road movie and a comedy, interspersed with surreal and sensual diversions that do not distract the viewer at all, which is surprising considering the tonal shifts inherent in such an approach.  The colourful characters and imaginative storytelling indeed do the trick.  I really enjoyed this and recommend this as an essential introduction to Bhutanese cinema. 

Verdict:  This picturesquely-shot, road movie-esque comedy-drama charms with its colourful characters and imaginative storytelling, embracing us with a warm if cautionary tale.




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