Khyentse Norbu, director and lama, on both sides of the lens
In one of many poignant—and telling—moments in Bhutan, Khyentse Norbu blesses the home of a local police chief. He begins chanting in Dzongkha, but suddenly the filmmaker in him takes over. Looking straight into the camera, he repeats the prayer in English—a simple but beautiful homage to the Buddha for the great gift of his teachings. Khyentse Norbu becomes the vehicle for the direct emotional experience that film—like no other medium—can provide, as he transmits the blessing to us, eye to eye.
At first, Travellers and Magicians feels almost like a documentary, so natural is the acting. (In fact, nonactors were cast in many of the key roles.) A parable that is at once funny and dramatic, the film operates on such subtle—and surprisingly sensual—levels that with each twist of the mesmerizing plots (there is a story within a story) we are drawn, like Alice down the rabbit hole, into a fantastical realm of unusual characters and revelations about human nature.
Bhutan itself is one of the characters, giving us a rare look at its pristine landscape. Only recently opened to outsiders, the tiny mountain realm seems to exist out of time, easily lending itself to the fantasy elements of the film. And this is precisely where Khyentse Norbu, its director, begins.
Dondup, played flawlessly by Bhutanese actor Tshewang Dendup, is a restless civil servant stationed in a small mountain village, anxiously awaiting a letter bidding him to come to America. When it arrives, he sets off. Dressed in a traditional gho (Bhutanese dress) and white sneakers, carrying a boom box in one hand and a sky-blue American Tourister suitcase in the other, Dondup cuts a hilarious figure as he hurries out of town. He doesn’t get far, since he’s forced to wait beside the mountain road for the infrequent bus that will take him to the capital.
Dondup is soon joined by an elderly apple picker and a wandering monk (played by the Bhutanese scholar Sonam Kingpa, who was originally contracted to translate the script from English into Dzongkha, then was persuaded to join the cast). With his chances of getting a seat in any passing vehicle now diminished, Dondup decides to outmaneuver the others by moving up the road. When no car or bus comes, he realizes that a man alone on a dark road at night, without food or shelter, is not so self-sufficient after all, and he grudgingly accepts the men’s invitation to share their dinner and fire. Thus, Khyentse Norbu makes the point that only in community can we prosper.
When the monk asks Dondup where’s he going, he replies, “To the land of my dreams.” The monk warns him, “You should be careful of dream lands. When you wake up it may not be very pleasant.” Realizing that Dondup is only trying to escape what he can never lose—his own true nature—the monk begins a tale to wake him up. It is a fable about a restless young man, Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), who dreams of riding away to a more exciting land. His younger brother slips him a magical potion in the hope of awakening him to the exciting reality of his existing life. Tashi soon finds himself lost in the mountains in a raging storm. He is befriended by an old man, Agay (Gomchen Penjor), who has hidden away his beautiful young wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom). Tashi and Deki start a clandestine affair, but Tashi comes to see how he has been lured into a labyrinth of deception by his own fantasies. The magical tale, of course, parallels Dondup’s idea of what awaits him in the West. By the time the monk finishes, Dondup has grasped the message: Everything you need is right where you are.
Tshewang Dendup’s humorous and expressive performance is reminiscent of Giancarlo Giannini’s in The Seduction of Mimi, and like that film’s director, Lina Wertmuller, Khyentse Norbu shows a knack for tragicomedy with a sociopolitical message. Asked what he will he will do to earn money in America, Dondup says it doesn’t matter, because whatever he does, he’ll make more than he ever would in Bhutan. He may even pick apples, he tells the apple picker, who is incredulous that anyone would give up a respected position to pick apples just for money. Here, Khyentse Norbu reminds us what can happen when we do not value what we have.
For all the messages about dreams, seduction, and deception, the film is a delight, the product of Khyentse Norbu’s inspired direction—and sense of humor. As Dondup quips, “Monks and drunks, who can take them seriously?”