A new remedy for soul deficiency!

August 27th, 2010

I have found a perfect remedy for the soul-deficient phantasmagoria of Avatar – which I’ll admit I enjoyed, being as shallow and escapist as the next guy – in a movie of brilliant colors and exotic, dramatic settings, about a culture so alien that ordinary American vocabulary barely can describe its workings and relationships, mixing technologies both ancient and new, focused on reincarnation and the survival of ancient teachings, and (here’s the kicker) a deadpan factual narrative, taking place just a few years ago on our planet earth.  Called Unmistaken Child, it follows a young Buddhist monk, Tenzin Zopa, as he seeks and finds the reincarnation of his deceased spiritual master, Geshe Lama Konchog.

OK, “replacement” not “reincarnation” for you skeptics out there.  The movie plunks us squarely down in Tenzin Zopa’s frame of reference, in which it’s not an issue.  For those inclined to debate on such subjects, there’s little here to change anyone’s mind, although the astrologer consulted by the monks (via video from Taiwan) as to the Lama Konchog’s post mortem whereabouts scores two fairly impressive hits when he says that the child’s father’s name begins with “A” and the location has the letters “TS” in its name.  When the infant candidate, a year or two old, demonstrates his creds by selecting objects that belonged to the deceased Lama from among similar objects with which he’s presented, it’s impressive, but the skeptical mind can detect many opportunities for decidedly unsupernatural guidance of his choices, both subtle and not so subtle.  However, that’s not the point, far from it.  More to the point is the growing and undisguised glee with which one of the child’s examiners greets each of his successive right choices.

This movie operates on many levels.  On one, it depicts a culture in which, when the guy in saffron robes comes to your impossibly isolated, hardscrabble village and tells you that your infant son is the umpteenth incarnation of Hungadunga Rinpoche, you swallow hard and surrender the kid to a life in the monastery, where you may never see him again, telling yourself that it is “for the benefit of sentient beings.”  It probably also does not hurt, in terms of status and wealth, to have it known that such a luminary is a member of the family – some of the families Tenzin Zopa visits are very eager to show off their infant sons.  To us in the land of used car salesmen, that kind of motivation seems familiar, even if the sincere desire to “benefit all sentient beings” seems like something from another planet.  On the other hand, this is a culture in which people greet and say farewell not by shaking hands, that ancient occidental gesture intended to demonstrate that even though one may be carrying weapons one does not intend to use them, but rather by touching forehead to forehead, which signifies – what?  Imagine how it feels, and that tingling in your head gives a clue.

It’s not all spiritual airy-fairy.  Life is not easy, in those dwellings made of artfully piled stones in high, cold valleys among the jagged stone peaks.  The people are dirt poor and work unremittingly to achieve a very bare subsistence.  All the children we see, including the one eventually identified as the former Konchog, are snot-nosed and filthy-faced.  I wondered about infant mortality.  Transport is by foot and pack animal.  And by helicopter.  One enters and leaves the valley by a big white passenger helicopter, a jarring element in a world where people get their food by flailing grain the same way they did a thousand years ago, and Tenzin Zopa, walking from village to village – there don’t appear to be any roads – often sleeps rough.  The movie alludes only very obliquely to the reason for the helicopter: Maoist guerillas control access to the valley by land routes.  The helicopter is of a piece with the jarring incongruities that make up Tenzin Zopa’s world.  Tenzin treks across the valley in sneakers beneath his monk’s orange robes, carrying his things in what looks like the book pack your kids might take to school.  Imagine carrying all your needs for an extended trek through remote Nepal in that.

The filmmakers’ strategy of simply observing without commenting, and the bits of western culture and technology bewilderingly larded into scenes of traditional tibetan peasantry, work together to create a mild sense of disorientation that never lets up,  – why are people sifting Lama Konchog’s cremation ashes for little pearls? why do people keep giving each other white scarves, and where does all this white cloth come from, and at what sacrifice? what are all those little colored flags about? where do the mostly traditionally-dressed villagers get the occasional cotton sweatshirt, complete with logo?   I finished the film with a hunger to look things up.  It is evidence of the filmmakers’ skill that these numerous loose ends function as invitations to further investigation, rather than distracting interruptions.

The camera sticks close to Tenzin Zopa.  It is his story.  He is good company, a handsome, intelligent, gentle young man, who speaks charmingly accented and only mildly fractured english, full of strength and joie-de-vivre.  We see him in pain after the death of his master, and in joy when the child he has found moves increasingly into the master’s role.  The root of the movie, the thread that binds it together, is this love between Tenzin Zopa and the dead and recovered master.  At one point, Tenzin reminisces about a game that he and Lama Konchog used to play.  When “Geshe-la,” as Tenzin calls him, was meditating, Tenzin would sneak up and very slowly and gently place a flower behind his ear.  Geshe-la loved flowers.  Then, when Tenzin was sleeping, Geshe-la would very slowly and gently place the same blossom behind Tenzin’s ear.  Later, we see the “unmistaken child” chasing Tenzin around and around, laughing uproariously, as small children love to do, and realize that in any sense that matters he truly is Geshe Lama Konchog’s reincarnation.

This entry was posted on Friday, August 27th, 2010 at 11:54 pm and is filed under Buddhism, Movies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.