Travellers and Magicians

A few years ago, Khyentse Norbu, a Buddhist monk and supposed reincarnation of a Tibetan saint made The Cup, a cute little film about soccer and Bhutanese monks. It was the first film ever from Bhutan. Norbu is back with Travellers and Magicians, an interesting look at the collision of the past and the present in Bhutan. What is immediately obvious is that Norbu is a capable director. Presumably, he's not working with the best equipment out there, but he frames his shots beautifully, switches easily between static and moving shots, and beautifully renders his home country. The techniques that Norbu uses are great, and like The Cup, Travellers and Magicians is a wonderfully visual film to watch.

It does suffer a bit in the plotting department, particularly at the end. There are two stories, the main plot and a story within the story. Both end abruptly, as if Norbu ran out of ideas. Most of Travellers and Magicians takes place on a journey, both physical and metaphorical. Dondup (Tsewang Dandup, The Cup) is a man of the present. He has posters of scantily clad pop singers on his wall, the latest sneakers, and a modern haircut. Life around him is stuck in the past. He is the new official for a small city in the countryside, but longs for America. He wants to get out of Bhutan as soon as possible in order to make money in the US, and when a friend provides him this opportunity, he takes it and runs. He misses the one bus that will take him to Thimpu, and where he can depart for America. This means he has to sit on the side of the road, waiting for the generosity of a stranger with a car. To his annoyance, others begin to gather to wait with him.

To anybody else, this would seem normal. Strangers would get together to share conversation and pass the time. To Dondup, these people are potential hindrances in his desire to obtain transportation. One of these people is a monk (Sonam Kinga), who passes the time by telling the story of Tashi (Lhapka Dorji), a young man also dissatisfied with the quiet rural life. He wants to escape his village to look for beautiful women. A ride on his family's new horse leaves him stranded in the woods, where he meets Agay (Gomchen Penjor), an old man, and his beautiful young wife Deki (Deki Yangzom). Initially, Tashi wants to leave as soon as possible. He wants to return home, and this is just another reminder of everything he despises. Then, unbeknownst to Agay, he and Deki fall for each other, creating a dangerous situation.

Dondup doesn't realize this, but his story is similar to Tashi's. He is longing for something different, not realizing the beauty of everything around him. He needs to slow down and appreciate what he has, rather than chase after things he may never have. And Norbu fills the screens with majestic mountains and misty valleys, showcasing how beautiful Bhutan really is. The Tashi scenes look like they used a different lens that brought out some other colors, giving everything a mystical feel to it. There are a few time-lapse scenes that were really surprising, since one doesn't expect something like that in such a 'simple' film. It's no real secret to assume that Travellers and Magicians ends exactly the way one would expect it to, but while this makes sense thematically, Norbu does not convince the audience as to why. For Dondup, is he changing his mind because the monk somehow enlightened him, and he has a newfound appreciation for his native country, or is it because of the young attractive girl (Sonam Lhamo) that he discovers belongs to his village? The former makes it a nice fable, the latter casts an air of cynicism on an otherwise sweet movie.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 33 minutes, Dzongkha with English subtitles, Not Rated but contains some language, a PG-13 or possibly an R.

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