Vastly more ambitious than the previous film, the alluring fable begins in a remote rural village where a city-bred official named Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) hatches a plan to finally escape the oppressive backwardness of his people and flee to the proverbial land of opportunity, America. Driven by dreams of girls, rock 'n' roll, money and plentiful cigarettes, Dondup is aflutter with worldly enthusiasm until he misses the only bus that will get him to the city where he can secure his visa... a bus that comes but once every two days.
As he hunkers down roadside, hoping to hitch a ride with the occasional passing motorist, other travelers begin to accumulate -- among them an aging apple trader, a farmer and his daughter and an irritatingly cheerful monk (Sonam Kinga) who sees straight through Dondup and into every chamber of his agitated soul. Hoping to illustrate for him the error of his ways, the monk relates to Dondup an old parable about a certain Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), the eldest of two brothers who, through his insatiable worldliness, one day finds himself lost in the forest and taken in by an old man and his beautiful young wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom). Seguing from the naturalistic setting of Dondup's world to the surreal environs of a magical past in Tashi's world, Norbu spins a secondary, complementary tale which is, in many ways, even more compelling than the first. Dark, burnished blues and smoky white light set the stage as the couple nurses Tashi back to health, creating a kind of "Postman Always Rings Twice" scenario in which earthly passions and carnal appetites take unexpected twists along the way to wreaking their usual, predestined havoc.
The juxtaposition of the two stories isn't anything particularly new -- numerous films have attempted something similar -- but Norbu's boldness in approaching each with such starkly different stylistic visions is uncharacteristically invigorating. Admittedly, Norbu is still working in the same general milieu; for all their differences, "The Cup" and "Travellers & Magicians" are essentially different variations on the same sermon: the pitfalls of materialism and human carnality as seen through Buddhist teachings. But where the gentle musings of "The Cup" coax the point home through humor and the general affability of its characters, "Travellers & Musicians" takes a darker, more cautionary approach.
As Bhutan's only international filmmaker of note, Norbu again benefits from the involvement of seasoned westerners, including his Oscar-winning "Cup" producer Jeremy Thomas and Los Angeles-based cinematographer Alan Kozlowski. Provided that their collaboration continues into the foreseeable future, audiences may rightfully greet Norbu's next film with even higher expectations. Starring Tshewang Dendup, Sonam Kinga, Sonam Lhamo, Lhakpa Dorji, Namgay Dorjee, Gomchen Penjore and Deki Yangzom. Directed and written by Khyentse Norbu. Produced by Jeremy Thomas. A Zeitgeist release. Drama. Dzongkha-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 108 min