Global Cinema 20: Bhutan – Milarepa (2006)

There aren’t a huge number of Bhutanese films, but one of the most well-known is 1999’s The Cup, which starred the director of this film, himself a Buddhist monk. Given the prominence of the religion in the country, it seems fitting that it should be the choice for my representative film for Bhutan, though it’s set in Tibet (now part of China), and filmed in India near the border.


Bhutanese flagKingdom of Bhutan (འབྲུག་ཡུལ་ Druk Gyal Khap)
population 754,000 | capital Thimphu (ཐིམ་ཕུ) (115k) | largest cities Thimphu, Phuntsholing (28k), Paro (11k), Gelephu (10k), Samdrup Jongkhar (9k) | area 38,394 km2 | religion Buddhism (75%), Hinduism (23%) | official language Dzongkha (རྫོང་ཁ) | major ethnicity not recorded | currency Ngultrum (Nu.) [BTN] | internet .bt

A small landlocked South Asian country surrounded by India on three sides, and bordering Tibet (China) to the north. It is situated on the historic Silk Road, and has avoided colonisation, with its identity largely formed by Buddhism. Geographically, it moves from subtropical in the south to alpine in the north. The name probably derives from the Tibetan name for Tibet (“Böd”), though traditionally it is said to come from the Sanskrit “Bhota-anta” for “end of Tibet”, and since the 17th century its own official name (Druk Yul, “Land of the Thunder Dragon”) refers to the country’s dominant Buddhist sect. Settlement dates back to 2000 BCE, and the aboriginal peoples were called the Monpa. Buddhism was introduced in the 7th century CE, and promulgated widely the following century, although historical records are scarce about early Bhutan. However, it seems that it is warlords and fiefdoms, each subscribing to a different sect of Buddhism, that defined the political divisions within the country, united in the 17th century. Bhutan attempted a bit of expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries, but were beaten back by wars with the British. A monarchy was instituted (the House of Wangchuck) in 1907, and a legislature created in 1953. Much of the monarchy’s power was transferred to an elected parliament in recent years, and the first elections took place in 2007. It is governed by a Prime Minister, though much power still remains with the monarch.

The cinematic industry emerged in the 1990s (television was banned until 1999), influenced by neighbouring India’s Bollywood. Some films blend this tradition with Buddhism, and the country produces around 30 features a year, with six cinemas in the capital.


མི་ལ་རས་པའི་རྣམ་ཐར།། Mi-la-ras-pa’i rnam-thar (Milarepa, 2006)

This tale is about the famous 11th/12th century Buddhist yogi of the title, and was originally intended to be the first of two parts about his life (though sadly the latter was never made). It covers his birth and journey towards becoming a Buddhist, specifically the period when he learned arcane powers to kill his family’s enemies, something that jarred him to the extent of wanting to turn his back on a violent life and pursue a higher ideal. Dramatically, it’s not always satisfying, though there’s plenty still to recommend it in the scenery and the setting, which is unusual enough to be of interest, even if Milarepa’s moral quandaries often seem a little bit buried in overly dark interior scenes and a lack of urgency. Still, it’s a very handsome work.

Milarepa film posterCREDITS
Director Neten Chokling གནས་བརྟན་མཆོག་གླིང་རིན་པོ་ཆེ; Writers Chokling and Tenzing Choyang Gyari; Cinematographer Paul Warren; Starring Gimyan Lodro, Jamyang Lodro; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (Gaia via Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 22 September 2020.

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