By SETH J. BOOKEY
If youve been jonesing for a Bhutanese film, you are in luck: Travelers & Magicians is making its U.S. debut.
Bhutan, in case you dont know, is a Buddhist kingdom nestled in the eastern Himalayas between Tibet and India. Until 1960, this mostly agricultural nation didnt have currency or even a written language.
But, as in much of the rest of the developing world, the intervening 45 years have brought to the Bhutanese people a fear of too much Westernization.
In Travelers & Magicians, we are introduced to Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), a government official posted in a remote, tiny village. He wears his hair long, much to the consternation of some village elders, and covers the walls of his room with cheesecake posters of Western girl singers. Dondup is eager to leave Bhutan, hoping that a friend in the U.S. will help him get out. The quiet life of the village is animated only by an archery contest and a housewarming that involves the delivery of a large, white, wooden phallus, illustrative of the fact that sex in Bhutan does not carry the same taboos as is in neighboring India, Tibet and China.
When he finally does get the letter hes been waiting for from his friend, Dondup races to catch a bus to the nearest larger town where he can apply for a visa. But two village elders slow him down and he misses the bus. Soon after, his boom box batteries die and he spends a small eternity hoping for a ride. An elderly man with a basket full of apples soon arrives, as does a monk (Sonam Kinga), both also looking for a ride. Dondup, angry at the competition, moves further down the road as a New Yorker might do to improve chances of catching a cab.
But Bhutans mountain roads are not like Western highways, and motor vehicles are few and far between. Dondup begins walking, and is soon rejoined by the old man and the monk for the evening. He is dependent on his two new companions for food, since he scornfully chucked the dried cheese an old woman in the village had given him for his journey.
The bus ride to and from the larger town is a two-day trip and going on foot will take forever, so the filmmaker Khyentse Norbu wisely adds a parallel tale, told by the monk, about Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), a young man who is also eager to leave his little village behind. When Taski leaves, he falls in love with Deki (Deki Yangzom), who is married to an older man. Things turn edgy when Deki begins to slowly poison her husband.
Meanwhile, Dondup and his fellow travelers are joined by a man who makes rice paper, and his beautiful young daughter Sonam (Sonam Lhamo). The story of Tashi is woven in and out of Dondups tale and, as it is told, we can see an attraction growing between Dondup, who is eager to leave Bhutan, and Sonam, whose beauty and innocence personifies the small, isolated nation he seems eager to leave. By the time Dondup parts from Sonam, getting a ride on a primitive tractor, it is clear that he is torn about what to do. Hes spent his entire journey complaining about how hed make more money picking apples in America than he ever would as a government official in Bhutan, but having been forced to slow down while pursuing his visa application has given him time to really think about his future. He now wonders whether life will really be better in the U.S.
Bhutan has a lively film industry, but many of its films are stories centered on the entrapment of love. Travelers & Magicians is a bit of a departure, depicting the culture clash brought on by modernization and focusing on a young mans desire to leave his homeland. Bhutan itself, the inspiration for the mythic Shangri-La, is one of the stars of this film. Every scene is panoramic, with undulating mountains in the background serrated by curving roads.
Despite the beautiful scenery, the movie often progresses slowlyafter all it charts a walk of hundreds of miles through the Himalayas. The story is permeated with Buddhist themes that may be unfamiliar to American viewers. And while the allure of Western culture may come as second nature for audiences in New York, the internal crisis unleashed when somebody raised in Bhutan considers abandoning an ancient culture is profound.