Five Pema Tseden Films to Watch
“Life is as ephemeral as a dying candle in the wind. It may be bright today and gone tomorrow.”
That line, from director Pema Tseden’s first feature-length film, “The Silent Holy Stones,” now feels prophetic. On May 7, the titan of Tibetan-language cinema and one of the leading members of the “Tibetan New Wave” celebrated young filmmakers in a post on his personal WeChat account. Hours later, in the early morning of May 8, he died suddenly at the age of 53.
Released in 2005, “The Silent Holy Stones” was a landmark in Tibetan film history. Over the ensuring 18 years, Pema Tseden not only directed and produced over a dozen films. (Like many Tibetans, he went by two given names.) He also became a powerful advocate for Tibetan cinema more broadly, supporting the careers of up-and-coming young filmmakers like Dargye Tenzin, Khashem Gyal, and Lhapal Gyal.
Born in 1969 in a mountainous rural part of the northwestern province of Qinghai, Pema Tseden once told me he spent his childhood raising goats after school and amusing himself by listening to the fantastical myths spun by the village’s older residents. Not long after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the national water authorities celebrated the construction of a dam near Pema Tseden’s home by building an auditorium for local villagers. On weekends, the building was transformed into a movie theater, providing a young Pema Tseden with his first taste of cinema, including films like Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and “Zorro.”
He would carry these influences with him throughout his career, first as a novelist and Chinese-Tibetan translator, then as a filmmaker. His films are at once gritty and ethereal, characterized by ever-shifting identities and seemingly never-ending conflicts between old and new.
Pema Tseden was fond of telling a story about a government-led campaign to preserve the legends he listened to as a child. Aging storytellers were brought into the city and asked to recite the lines into a microphone, but the men were silent. It’s a fitting metaphor for his work: Odes to life on the grasslands featuring characters who can never quite get the right words out.
These five movies showcase Pema Tseden’s range, from his ultra-realistic early work to his dreamier later films.
The Silent Holy Stones (2005)
Featuring a cast of non-professional actors, “The Silent Holy Stones” tells the story of a young lama who returns home for the new year. Once there, he falls in love with the Tibetan-language version of the “Journey to the West” TV show. Wanting to share it with his fellow monks, he begs his father to bring, not just the videotape, but the family TV back with them to the monastery.
He gets his wish, and the show briefly captures the attention of the monks. When it ends, his father packs up and prepares to return home alone, leaving the boy with the empty video case as a keepsake. The camera lingers on the young man as his eyes shift between the empty case and his disappearing father, until he must run back for daily prayers. Starring a real lama, “The Silent Holy Stones” is a captivating, hyperreal look at everyday life on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau and the uneasy coexistence of secular imagination and religious devotion.
Soul Searching (2009)
The winner of the Jury Grand Prix at the 12th Shanghai International Film Festival, “Soul Searching” follows a film crew as they scour Tibet for actors to star in an adaptation of the famous Tibetan opera Drimé Kunden. Dating back roughly 700 years, Tibetan opera, or lhamo, mixes dance and song, secular art, and religious ceremony. But the introduction of new forms of entertainment to the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau in recent years has eroded the popularity of lhamo and made finding young actors more difficult. When the production team finally finds their female lead, she says she’ll only perform together with her ex-boyfriend. The team agrees, and together they set out to find the man.
What follows is a kind of play within a play, as the director explores the place of Tibetan Buddhism and traditional Tibetan culture in the lives of the region’s young people, as well as the challenges they face in a rapidly modernizing society.
Watch it on 1905 (Chinese subtitles only).
Bearing a name that means “runaway,” Tharlo is a hermit-like herder with a flawless memory. Although he cannot read Chinese and lives deep in the mountains, he is able to recite passages from the Tibetan version of Mao’s “little red book” on command.
The film’s action begins when Tharlo is called out of the mountains and ordered to report to a nearby town to register for a state ID card. The world he finds may as well be another planet as far as Tharlo is concerned. In order to take a portrait for the ID card, he must take off his cap, shed his religious talismans, and cut off his ponytail. It is the last step that ultimately changes his life. At the hairdresser’s, he meets a young woman, falls in love, and at her suggestion, shaves the rest of his hair, severing his last symbolic connection to the mountains. When the woman disappears, Tharlo finds himself unmoored. Unrecognized and unrecognizable, he returns home, unsure of the man he’s become.
Available for rent on Amazon.
Pema Tseden once remarked that he took very different approaches to writing novels and making films. As a novelist, he worked at the edges of the avant garde, exploring the uncertain psychological worlds of his characters. As a filmmaker, he was a realist focused on documenting life in Tibetan regions.
“Jinpa” sees Pema Tseden apply his literary methods to filmmaking for the first time. It is a fantastical tale of redemption, in which the film’s stars — a truck driver and a revenge-minded drifter, both named Jinpa — meet, split, and reunite. The film unfolds like a dream, as the director drills into the differences between the driver, a charismatic outsider played by a longtime Pema Tseden collaborator also named Jinpa, and the silent, angry drifter, an embodiment of traditional mountain life. Together, they offer a composite portrait of a culture torn between two mindsets.
Pema Tseden’s first film to feature a female protagonist, “Balloon” offers a heartbreaking look at a woman caught between the country’s family planning policy and traditional Tibetan beliefs.
The central conflict of the film is straightforward: Unexpectedly pregnant with a fourth child, does Drolkar have the right to choose for herself what to do about the baby? But her dilemma quickly grows more complicated. A female doctor, knowing the baby will violate the country’s family planning policies, advises Drolkar to have an abortion, not just for policy reasons, but for her own future.
Drolkar’s family, meanwhile, pressures her to keep the baby for religious reasons. The family patriarch has died, and the family believes her child is his reincarnation. If Drolkar gets an abortion, it could sever the family from his spirit forever.
The film has few answers for Drolkar. But in a society where true reproductive autonomy remains out of reach for many women, Pema Tseden opts to end the film on a hopeful, albeit ambiguous note.
Watch it on iQiyi.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly formatted the Pema Tseden’s name.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell. Editor: Wu Haiyun. Visuals: Douban, reedited by Sixth Tone.
(Header image: Right: Pema Tseden poses for a photo in Shanghai, June 14, 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone; Left: Stills from Pema Tseden’s films. From Douban, reedited by Sixth Tone.)