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Travellers and Magicians

(2004) *** Unrated
108 min. Zeitgeist Films. Director: Khyentse Norbu. Cast: Tshewang Dendup, Lhakpa Dorji, Sonam Lhamo, Sonam Kinga, Deki Yangzom.

Writer-director Khyentse Norbu's Travellers and Magicians has the distinction of being the first film shot entirely in Bhutan, and in the Bhutanese national language. Norbu, the only director I know who's officially recognized as the reincarnation of a 19th century Tibetan saint, goes after something more serious than in his first feature, The Cup, though his dry humor remains intact. Norbu tells a dual story of accidental spiritual journeys. In so doing, Travellers and Magicians illuminates storytelling's scriptural capacity to impart life lessons.

As is his wont, Norbu casts non-professional actors. Tshewang Dendup plays Dondup, a young government official who can barely contain his desire to hightail it to America. In the remote and beautiful highlands of Dzongkha, most people aren't entirely sure of the time or date, but Dondup—who wears an "I Love NY" T-shirt and white hi-top sneakers, listens to rock music, and festoons his room with posters of Uncle Sam and American women—becomes time-sensitive when an opportunity arises. If he can make it out of the mountains and into the city in time, he can secure his way to America.

When he misses his bus, an infuriated Dondup waits it out on the mountain road, attempting to hitch a ride from one of the rare passing cars. Much to his chagrin, others come to line the road and, in his mind, make his task more difficult. First, an old apple seller and a cheerful Buddhist monk (Sonam Kinga) cozy up to Dondup; later a rice-paper merchant and his dutiful (and conspicuously lovely) teenage daughter join the group. As the motley crew slowly makes its way down the mountain, Dondup becomes more serene, partly due to the girl (Sonam Llamo) and partly due to the vaguely familiar fireside story told by the monk along the way.

The monk's tale comes in answer to Dondup's assertion that he's going to the land of his dreams. "You should be careful about dreamlands," cautions the monk. "When you wake up, it may not be very pleasant." The subsequent story tells of Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), a callow young man who becomes lost in the woods. When he discovers an isolated house inhabited by an elderly farmer and his seductive young wife (Deki Yangzom), he becomes sorely tempted to stray from the path. The nesting structure of the narrative, with stories and dreams, has just a hint of The Saragossa Manuscript about it, though Norbu paints his fantasies in otherworldly color. The serialized nature of the story contributes to a perhaps-too-patient pace, but patience is partly the point.

The ably performed and winningly photographed Travellers and Magicians works on a few levels: as a pleasant travellogue with some sharp details (a spirited archery competition under billowing flags, the hoisting of a large wooden phallus for a housewarming), as a satirical romantic comedy posing a choice between a girl and America, and as a morality play. Any way you look at it, Travellers and Magicians is a charming little film, worth seeing on a big screen, about how the grass always seems greener on the other side of the border.

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