Saturday, November 24, 2007

Movie Review: Milarepa; Sonom Rimpoche, dir; 2006

Milarepa is one of Tibet's greatest spiritual heroes, a man who began life as a murderer and went on to become a saint. Director Sonom Rimpoche, a reincarnated Buddhist monk who took up movie making, began his film project with with a saintly myth - and committed murder. His 2006 version the life of Milarepa, produced by Taiwain's Kun Sang Film, is a cadaverous film, an amateur movie production that suggests a film school project. About the best you can mange in reviewing it is a pat on the back to the cast and crew for making the effort.

The production quality is low-budget television. The camera never moves, shots are mostly straight on the main actor's face, the lighting is uniformly bright, and the transitions between scenes are home computer video effects. All the major action takes place off stage and is conveyed in what has to be an unintended homage to the silent movie era, screen shots of white text on black background. The editors couldn't bear to leave out all the expensive location shots and so we are treated to unnecessarily long sequences of Tibetans riding horses across the mountains. The actors are wooden amateurs who stumble through their stage directions and deliver their lines in pained recitations. The English subtitles are a horrible mess, with Milarepa's sister, for example, "wondering" far from home, instead of straying. And someone forgot to mention to the director that in the 11th century rifles didn't yet exist.

Leaving aside the inept production, the story delivers little spiritual punch. The only thing we learn about Buddhism is that it is based on "loving kindness and compassion," which is pretty hard to understand when Milarepa's teacher Marpa makes his student singlehandedly build, tear down and rebuild a stone house nine times. He does this to test Milarepa's sincerity and to help his student burn away his murderous guilt, but he comes across as just plain crazy, instead of a crazy sage. We never really understand what it is that Marpa has to teach, nor why Milarepa so eagerly and earnestly seeks the teachings.

Basically, the filmmaker is depending on the viewer to be familiar with the story and to fill in the details for himself. And that's what makes this such a disappointing film, that it does not appear to have been a labor of love, but simply a labor.

(There are at present two films titled Milarepa. The film reviewed here is the 2006 version from Taiwan's Kun Sang Film and PBC Music, directed by Sonom Rinpoche. But the first to be released is a 2005 Bhutanese production from director Neten Chokling, released in Europe and North America as Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint.)



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