Tharlo follows in the footsteps of Pema Tseden's The Silent Holy Stones (2005), The Search (2009), Old Dog (2011), and The Sacred Arrow (2014). Tharlo has attracted audiences both in China and internationally. Nominated for the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival (2015), it was also nominated for four awards at the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, where it won the Best Adapted Screenplay Award.
Tharlo opens on a black screen to the accompaniment of melodious chanting of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. Gradually, a man in his forties wearing a sheep-wool hat materializes. An orphan who does not know his exact age nor his real name, he has herded sheep on the mountains since childhood. He has been known as "Ponytail" since childhood. He can recite "Serve the People," a section from the Little Red Book, without a single mistake, which greatly impresses Rdo rje, a local policeman.
Rdo rje orders Tharlo to obtain an identity card from the local police station, but tells him to first go to the Bde skyid Photo Studio and have his ID photo taken. Tharlo then leaves his familiar pasture and heads for the town, where the photo studio proprietor recommends that he cross the road to a salon and have his hair washed in order to look his best in the ID photo.
G.yang mtsho, the hairdresser, is the first Tibetan woman with short hair Tharlo has ever encountered. While washing Tharlo's hair, she asks, "How many sheep do you have?"
"I have 375 sheep," Tharlo promptly replies. G.yang mtsho slows her shampoo work, stares at Tharlo for a few seconds, and follows with, "How much are they worth?"
Tharlo replies with details of the cash value of the sheep based on their sex and age. He concludes, "Probably they are worth 160,000 to 170,000 RMB."
Suitably impressed, G.yang mtsho tells him that he is more handsome with his now clean, long hair and adds, "I have short hair because I have been hoping to meet a long-haired, handsome man like you." Tharlo takes fifty RMB from his pocket and hands it to her. G.yang mtsho says, "I can't change your money."
Tharlo says, "You don't need to give me any change," and abruptly leaves in an emotional upheaval. It is the first time a woman has told him that he is handsome. Tharlo returns to the photo studio and has his picture taken. While waiting for the photograph to be printed, Tharlo revisits the hairdresser, who flatters, "You really are a handsome man," and invites him to a karaoke bar that night.
At the karaoke bar, G.yang mtsho sings, It's My Destiny to Meet You, a modern Tibetan song sung in Chinese, followed by Leave the Mountains sung in Tibetan. After a few seconds of hesitation, Tharlo responds by singing a Tibetan love song. G.yang mtsho expresses interest in love songs and Tharlo promises her he will learn more when they meet next time.
The next morning, Tharlo is drunk and lying in bed with G.yang mtsho. She declares that she no long wants to stay in the town and suggests that they leave together for Lhasa, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, or beyond. Tharlo leaves. After delivering the ID photo to the local township police station, he drives back to the mountains on his motorcycle after purchasing a box of liquor and fifty firecrackers. In the mountains, Tharlo learns love songs, drinks heavily, and dreams of G.yang mtsho and the next time he can meet her and they can enjoy karaoke together.
While Tharlo is passed out from heavy drinking, many of his sheep are attacked and killed by wolves. Subsequently, Tharlo is humiliated and beaten by the sheep owner's son, Sbyin pa. Intending to pick up his ID card in town and then leave with G.yang mtsho, he drives to town and gives her 160,000 RMB (US$25,000). This represents his entire life savings on top of the proceeds of selling the sheep.
G.yang mtsho understands that Tharlo would only have this much money if he had sold the sheep. Imagining that men will soon be searching for him, she suggests he cut his long hair, so nobody will recognize him. Tharlo agrees and then this Tibetan Delilah cuts off his long hair. That evening, Tharlo is eager to sing the love songs that he has learned on the mountains at the karaoke bar. G.yang mtsho, however, takes him to a party hosted by a locally famous singer. Tharlo gets drunk again that night. The next morning, he finds himself alone on G.yang mtso's bed. With effort, he gets up and anxiously looks for his clothes. The frame shakes as music, suggesting panic, increases our sense of Tharlo's anxious inner world. Tharlo searches for G.yang mtsho in every corner of the town - the karaoke bar, the photo studio, and the barber shop. She is gone. She has fled. Unbalanced framing, natural light, a bumpy dirt road, a disordered street, and the continual noise of motors and construction activity create a sense of depression emphasizing the melancholy of Tharlo's inner world and the "civilizing" town.
Tharlo features scenes with deftly crafted color, lighting, modeling, props, performance scheduling, and sound. At the very beginning of the film, the director introduces the main character in a dramatic way. Tharlo recites "Serve the People," but we also hear the sound of something feeding in the opening scene. Gradually, a man in front of a slogan in large Chinese characters on a wall comes into view, as does a little lamb in the man's shoulder bag. We later learn that wolves killed the lamb's mother. As Tharlo finishes his recitation and as he turns to Chief Rdo rje, we notice a ponytail under his sheep-wool hat. During conversation, Tharlo feeds the little lamb from a small bottle taken from his shoulder bag. The use of a sheep-wool hat, ponytail, the little lamb, and conversation wtih Chief Rdo rje powerfully communicate Tharlo's vocation and character.
Gradually, we realize that this is a black and white production indicative of Tharlo's world, a realm of only good and evil, emphasizing this journey from a state of naïve, pure trust and belief to the loss of identity, made all the more poignant because the accompanying pain and suffering is self-inflicted. In a few seconds, the director captures the transition of society and ways in which vulnerable individuals lose their identity in what at times seems an almost instantaneous transition from the traditional to being a "modern, civilized" global citizen. For example, while Tharlo is in the photography studio, a couple is taking a wedding photo. The background photo behind the couple changes - Lhasa... Beijing... New York City... - and the couple's clothes change from Tibetan robes to Western-style clothing. Bleating from Tharlo's bag draws their attention. They ask Tharlo if they can have a photo with his little lamb, and confide that they are former herders.
In this scene, the director seems to comment on how easy it is to enter and operate in a world of international modernity, regardless of our location, but how difficult it is to create an intimate relationship from pure, innocent hearts. This is the kind of relationship that Tharlo imagines he has achieved with G.yang mthso, who then cruelly dupes him.
I want to particularly comment on a scene that visually illustrates the relationship between Tharlo and G.yang mtsho, the hairdresser. At the hair salon, numerous props are used to reference the characters within a certain space. For example, the entire dialogue between Tharlo and G.yang mtsho takes place in a mirror, suggesting that what is happening in the mirror is a sham because G.yang mtsho's sweet, insincere words hide her true purpose. The mirror is divided into two sections, suggestive of two different worlds. Tharlo is at the edge of the image while G.yang mtsho occupies the larger part of the space. Tharlo is on the lower side while G.yang mtsho is in a comparatively higher position than Tharlo, hinting at the inferiority and superiority of the two characters, reflecting strength and weakness, domination and marginality.
How does the film express Tharlo's inner loneliness? There is no dialogue as Tharlo herds and while he is in his hut on the mountain. The use of firecrackers, a radio, sheep, a Tibetan mastiff, prayer flags, scarecrows that keep the wolves at bay, and the sounds of nature emphasize a world full of loneliness.
Tharlo thinks of G.yang mtsho while sitting woodenly as his sheep move forward, marginalizing him. From a vast wide angle, we only see Tharlo's back as he gazes at a place far beyond the mountains before him as wind buffets his heart and flutters the prayer flags by the hut.
At night before going to bed, Tharlo uses firecrackers to scare away the wolves, whose terrifying howls resound from the distant mountains as Tharlo smokes thoughtfully under the shimmering light of a small butter lamp. When he opens his hut door and comes out to light the firecrackers, a shining light from the open door pierces the darkness of the vast pasture. Tharlo walks some distance and then sets off the firecrackers. The ensuing rattle-tattle, vivid sparks in the black sky, and the barking of his Tibetan Mastiff accentuate the silence of the pasture.
In his hut, Tharlo drinks and intently listens to love songs on the radio. He is intoxicated within the invisible space created by the love song lyrics and the liquor. When Tharlo drinks water from a bucket, the camera turns to the surface in front of him, displaying an inverted wavy image of Tharlo, insinuating his unstable inner world and what will likely happen.
Wolves attack and sheep die, including the little lamb - symbolic of Tharlo's unsullied inner world. This greatly distresses Tharlo, who had believed herding was a way to serve the people. He has now lost this sense of guiding obligation. As he boils flesh from the sheep killed by the wolves and then eats it, the beautiful thoughts he has of his lover and the great happiness it brings him conflicts with the cruel reality of losing his belief - the desire to "Serve the People."
At night after eating boiled meat, Tharlo gazes at a dark path in the mountains far beyond his back that is featured only in a wideangle frame. After a few seconds, he gets up and lights a pile of dry grass. The subsequent light dances about as sharp, dark mountain winds whip the blaze. The crackle of the fire implies his eagerness to escape from the mountains, and provides further insight into his inner world.
Indulgence in alcohol and smoking suggest weakness of character, creating a basis for ensuing events. Movement between the mountain and the township town indirectly illustrates the route of Tharlo's downward spiral.
At the very end of the film, Tharlo stops his motorcycle on a bridge under the snow-capped mountains along a long, zigzag road. He lights a cigarette, opens a bottle of liquor, and ponders. We only see a side profile of Tharlo. After a few minutes of drinking he smashes the bottle, takes out a firecracker from his shoulder bag, and lights it. The firecracker explodes. With a long, cold shot, the screen turns black, accompanied by a recitation of "Serve the People."
Concern for cultural identity and individual predicament are recurrent concerns in Pema Tseden's calm, yet profoundly emotional films. Using a Tibetan character in Tharlo, the very nature of individual identity under the powerful, invasive wave of modern "civilization" and the sacrifices behind "development" are called into question. The heart of Tharlo's experience, sense of dislocation and loss, and longing for what modernity has to offer is familiar in other parts of the world, although perhaps expressed in somewhat different forms. Tharlo is thus a universal story, transcending boundaries between Tibetan and Chinese.(To be continued)
* Originally published in Asian Highlands Perspectives at http://bit.ly/2o5MJcv
Khasham Gyal graduated from Qinghai University for Nationalities with a major in Tibetan Literature. He is the founder of the Amilolo Films, dedicated to educating young Tibetans about digital video production and encouraging a new generation of Tibetan filmmakers. Khasham Gyal has directed numerous documentaries and short films about Tibetan life and culture. Valley of the Heroes is his first full-length documentary film.