Buddhist lama breaks into filmmaking with this biopic of the Tibetan mystic

Milrepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint

on September 07, 2007 by Wade Major
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Those who thought it an anomalous curiosity when Khyentse Norbu, one of Tibetan Buddhism's highest-ranking lamas, segued into filmmaking with 1999's delightful The Cup and its haunting 2003 follow-up Travellers and Magicians may want to reevaluate that assessment in the wake of Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint . The writing/directing debut of yet another noteworthy Tibetan lama, Neten Chokling (previously an actor in The Cup ), Milarepa suggests not only a budding filmmaking fascination among a certain class of Buddhist lamas and their followers but a burgeoning cinematic movement as well.

The life of the revered 11th-century mystic known as Milarepa is, indeed, the stuff of movies, a sinner-to-saint trajectory not unlike that of the prophet Moses or the apostle Paul. Chokling here chooses to focus only on the first part of that life, when Milarepa was an impressionable teenager named Thöpaga (Jamyang Lodro). Robbed of his rightful inheritance by an avaricious uncle and aunt, Thöpaga is sent by his mother (Kelsang Chuki Tethtong) to learn sorcery from the powerful magician Yongten Trogyal (Orgyen Tobgyal) so that he might wreak revenge on his unscrupulous relatives.

Precisely what happens thereafter is obviously no great surprise—the film's title pretty much spills the beans. But Chokling, like his friend and mentor Norbu, is not really concerned with conventional narrative as much as he is with ideas and lessons. It's probably overreaching to say that Milarepa is a Buddhist polemic or even some sort of proselytizing, though it's clear that it's meant to teach more than entertain.

Shot in 2005 on Super 16mm in some of the most remote regions of Tibet, Milarepa is often spectacular and beautiful to look at, and at other times surprisingly staid and clumsy. But while Chokling clearly doesn't yet have Norbu's grasp of technique and style, he does have a point of view that is uniquely his own, a matter-of-fact view of the supernatural as something so patently natural that it never quite feels out of place against the restrained, docudrama-like acting and staging.

Unfortunately, fans of such films may eventually have to settle for finding them on DVD—that it took two years for this film to find even the smallest of American distributors is but the latest indicator that foreign-language cinema, particularly niche films from more remote cultures, are having a harder and harder time competing. All the more reason, then, for supporters to seek this one out sooner rather than later.
Distributor: Luminous Velocity
Cast: Jamyang Lodro, Orgyen Tobgyal, Kelsang Chukie Tethtong and Jamyang Nyima
Director: Neten Chokling
Screenwriters: Neten Chokling and Tenzing Choyang Gyari
Producer: Raymond Steiner
Genre: Drama; Tibetan-language, subtitled
Rating: PG for some violence, disturbing images and thematic elements
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: September 7, 2007 NY, September 14 LA, Septmeber and October exp.
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