Kristof Van den Troost reviews a Tibetan tale of the encounter between traditionalism and modernity.
Jessica Yeung and Wai-ping Yau, eds., Tharlo: Short Story and Film Script by Pema Tseden (MCCM Creations, 2017), 267pp.
“Isn’t it enough that I know who I am?” asks a Tibetan shepherd when ordered to get his picture taken for an identity card in Pema Tseden’s 2015 film Tharlo. The film’s title is the shepherd’s given name—even though people mostly know him by his nickname, “Ponytail”. He never receives an answer to his question. Instead, Ponytail/Tharlo’s unquestioned self-identity will soon be shattered when, in his quest to have his picture taken, he encounters modernity in some of its archetypal cinematic forms: the corrupt materialist city and its ultimate embodiment, the femme fatale.
Pema Tseden is one of the major film talents emerging from the People’s Republic of China. After making his mark as a writer, he was the first Tibetan to graduate from the prestigious Beijing Film Academy. His films documenting contemporary life in Tibet quickly went on to win awards at various domestic and international festivals. Premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2015, Tharlo, which is based on the director’s eponymous short story published in 2012, is the most internationally well-known among his body of work. While Pema Tseden has been the subject of a special issue of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas, this collection of the director’s writings on Tharlo, edited by Jessica Yeung and Wai-ping Yau, promises to bring his work to the general readership. Containing a critical overview of Pema Tseden’s literary and cinematic output; English translations of the original short story and film script written in Tibetan; and a shot-by-shot description of the film itself, the beautifully designed book also contains plenty of gorgeously stark black-and-white film stills.
Yeung and Yau’s erudite and accessible introduction builds on existing scholarship on Tseden’s work and offers an auteurist account of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Treating his creative output as palimpsests and examples of hypertextuality, they argue that the Tibetan director reworks images, scenes, characters and other elements from his earlier works into new combinations, so that “a new layer of meaning emerges with each iteration.” Particularly laudable is their effort to go beyond the director’s filmic output, examining a large number of his short stories. Unfortunately, but also understandably given the editors’ background in Chinese cinemas and literature, the discussion is largely based on Chinese translations of Tseden’s stories.
Yeung and Yau point out that the central motif in Tseden’s works is the complications brought by modernization—the loss of traditional culture, religious beliefs and moral values, and its replacement by sprawling urbanization and rampant materialism and consumerism. These are issues that confront many underdeveloped communities around the world today. In Tibet, however, the presence of the Chinese Communist Party in enforcing modernization and suppressing indigenous religious culture makes economic transformation a particularly painful process. In the film’s opening scene, when Tharlo monotonously recites Mao Zedong’s “To Serve the People”, the slogan is also prominently displayed on the walls of the police station where he gives this performance. However, the director does not treat modernity and tradition as a dichotomy. He refuses to glamorize Tibet’s traditional way of life or demonize all aspects of newness.
While Yeung and Yau bring up Tseden’s self-referential tendencies, the editors pay all too little attention to the range of intertextual elements of the film. The striking use of black-and-white cinematography is barely addressed, for instance, and neither is the presence of a femme fatale. While the label of “film noir” is too easily attached to films nowadays, Tharlo does engage with many conventions of the genre. The plot centers on an anti-hero who is seduced by an eroticized woman into committing a crime, is subsequently betrayed, and is practically destroyed by the end of the film. The many depictions of the “New Woman” in 1930s Shanghai cinema also come to mind as a possible reference. Nevertheless, the editors importantly note that Tharlo avoids the usual charge of misogynistic treatment of female characters in film noir. Instead, the film enables viewers to see this destructive woman as “a victim of her circumstances.”
The director’s creative process unfolds through the juxtaposition of the original short story, the script, and a shot-by-shot description of the film’s final version. This book is a valuable record of how an idea (short story) is turned into the textual (script) and emerges as sound and image (film). Jessica Yeung’s translations of the story and the script are excellent, rendering Pema Tseden’s deceptively simple language into a highly readable narrative in English. Thoughtfully designed and competently edited, the book should be of interest to scholars and students of Chinese cinema, as well as film lovers in general. It is a momentous first step to bring greater recognition to an important but still unjustly underappreciated filmmaker in contemporary world cinema.
Kristof Van den Troost is an Assistant Professor in the Centre for China Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.