Visiting the world of Tibetans in exile
Despite all the options, movies tend to take us to the same old places: New York, San Francisco, Paris, underground parking garages. It's a pleasure, then, to come across a film like "Dreaming Lhasa ," a drama that unfolds amid the crystalline backdrops of Dharamsala and other cities in northern India. Shot by cinematographer Ranjan Palit through high-altitude oxygen, the images have a translucent purity; you feel as if you're seeing the world anew.
Which is good, because the dialogue is pretty old. The performances, too, are as flat as the Ganges Plain . "Dreaming Lhasa" goes a long way on the strength of its exotic visuals and gently urgent narrative, but in the end it doesn't go quite far enough.
Still, it's a Tibetan film -- a rare thing -- made by Tibetans, starring Tibetans, and set in the increasingly desperate exile community of Dharamsala . It has been almost 60 years since China invaded "the Roof of the World," nearly 50 since the Dalai Lama fled over the mountains to India. What does it mean to be Tibetan if you've never even seen your own country?
It's not an idle question to Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso ), a chic Manhattanite so far removed from her parents' culture she can barely speak the language. In Dharamsala to make a documentary on Tibetan survivors of Chinese government torture (their testimonies punctuate the film like nagging reminders), Karma relies on a local bad boy named Jigme (Tenzin Jigme ) to translate for her. For his part, he can't decide whether she's another Western tourist babe for him to seduce or a sister in the struggle.
Karma interviews an imposing Tibetan refugee named Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang ), and he in turn asks her a favor: to return a charm box to an acquaintance of his mother's, a man named Loga , long assumed dead but persistently rumored to be still living. The two journey together to Delhi, Jaipur, and other cities, following a 20-year-old trail that allows filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam to fill in the sad, brave back-story of the Tibetan diaspora.
Kalsang has an odd sort of Himalayan-Mastroianni grace and Gyatso is stunning to behold. Unfortunately, the actress is in real life a banker, and her acting skills are about what you'd expect from someone with an international business degree from Georgetown. The delicate not-quite-romance that grows between Karma and Dhondup is seriously hampered by her wan line readings and by dialogue that's functional at best and hamhanded at worst.
Far more interesting is the subplot involving the translator, Jigme, a rangy malcontent torn between fighting on and giving up. The sharpest parts of "Dreaming Lhasa" are the glimpses we get of cynical young men pretending to be monks to get US entry visas, partying at Dharamsala discos with credulous Westerners, and wishing they had the courage to go on a hunger strike like Jigme's friend.
This is something we haven't seen before -- something that doesn't fit onto a "Free Tibet" bumper sticker -- and it's heartbreaking: the slow death of a national soul. The Dalai Lama is glimpsed briefly in a passing car, but the Buddha seems very far away. Karma and Dhondup do get to top up their dharma reserves as they talk to the old men who knew Loga, and good for them. It's the young men in the discos who are losing their history.