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The two men embark on parallel, if separate, journeys. Their yearning is a common one--for a better and different life. Dondup, delayed by the timeless pace of his village, is forced to hitchhike through the beautiful wild countryside of Bhutan to reach his goal. He shares the road with a monk, an apple seller, a papermaker and his beautiful young daughter, Sonam. Throughout the journey, the perceptive yet mischievous monk relates the story of Tashi. It is a mystical fable of lust, jealousy and murder, that holds up a mirror to the restless Dondup, and his blossoming attraction to the innocent Sonam. The cataclysmic conclusion of the monk's tale leaves Dondup with a dilemma--is the grass truly greener on the other side? Written by
Sujit R. Varma
Dondup (Tsewang Dandup) is a Bhutanese government officer who has just been assigned to a small village. He's anxiously awaiting a letter from a friend in America. As soon as he receives it, he plans to meet his friend in Bhutan's capital, Timphu, and from there make his way to America, which he imagines of a land of great beauty and great opportunity, with "cool", beautiful women and an exciting lifestyle.
Extending from the premise, Travellers and Magicians becomes a combination of a road film and a grass-is-greener film. Dondup receives his letter, but partially due to cultural formalities and niceties, he misses the bus he needed to catch to make it to Timphu--a 2-day journey--on time. Increasingly agitated, he meets up with a humble apple-seller and a Buddhist monk on the road, and eventually two more people join the group. While they travel, the monk very gradually tells them a parallel story meant to serve as a parable, which we see enacted.
The structure and subgenres of the film provide a nice framework for two major, intertwined themes, both of them very Buddhist in nature. The subtler theme, most rooted in it being a road movie, is that of living in the moment, which is one aspect of mindfulness. The journey, here shown in a literal way, but also meant figuratively, is just as important as arriving at a destination. The more explicit theme, rooted in the grass-is-greener aspect, is a warning against the attachment to hopes, desires and dreams. Attachment is different than merely having hopes, desires and dreams. Attachment is a state where one stops being mindful of the here and now.
Dondup keeps dreaming about America. In his mind, he's already there, and his appearance and behavior evidence this. He talks of how beautiful it must be, yet Bhutan, which is on the edge of South-Central China, in the Himalayas, not too far from Mount Everest and Nepal, isn't short on beauty. Exquisite cinematography keeps us aware of this, and stresses how Dondup cannot see what is right in front of his face. He also dreams of the job he might hold in America--perhaps he'll be an apple-picker or dishwasher, he muses. But he has a relatively well-paid and certainly well-respected position in his culture. He dreams of the women in America, yet he runs into a very beautiful and elegant woman on his journey who is young, single and very attracted to him. The grass-is-greener theme even rears its head by Dondup trying to block out live music that's right in front of him (thanks to the Monk with a dramnyen, which is a bit like a guitar) by playing western music on a boom box.
At the same time, the parallel story told by the monk features a young man with similar dreams who inadvertently escapes to an unknown area where he too meets a beautiful woman who is attracted to him. The woman's husband has also achieved "the other side of the fence" in his grass-is-greener dream, but with the arrival of the young man, it backfires on him. Achieving the greener grass also ends up backfiring on the young man in a way, and he seeks a return home.
It's important to remember that in Buddhism, these ideas are not presented in moralizing way, and they're not presented as something black and white. Hopes, desires and dreams are not considered bad things (and neither is attachment--the problems with such things are more matter-of-factly presented), and certainly, the grass could be greener somewhere else. Because of this, Travellers and Magicians writer/director Khyentse Norbu maintains appropriate degrees of ambiguity throughout the film. While doing so, he presents a story with important themes that is captivatingly told with beautiful cinematography and excellent performances. Don't miss this one.
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