'Tharlo': Film Review

Courtesy of dGenerate Collection at Icarus Films

A lonely Tibetan shepherd becomes romantically involved with a sophisticated younger woman in Pema Tseden's acclaimed drama.

Being a shepherd undoubtedly requires a lot of patience, and so does watching the latest effort from acclaimed Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden (Old Dog). Relating the tale of a sheepherder whose life changes dramatically when he ventures to the big city and becomes romantically involved with a younger, sophisticated woman, Tharlo is meticulously executed, but like many art house films of its type, it's more than a little dull.

The title character (Shide Nyima) lives a quiet, simple life tending to his flock, with a pet lamb being his only company. Although uneducated, he possesses a prodigious memory, as demonstrated by his ability to quote at length from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, a feat he performs at the drop of a hat.

Notified by the local authorities that he must obtain an official ID card — "I know who I am, isn't that enough?" he complains — Tharlo, more commonly known as "Ponytail" for his trademark hairstyle, ventures into the nearest town. He visits a photographer to get his picture taken, only to be told that he must first get himself cleaned up. He then goes to a hair salon, where's he attended to by the comely Yangchuo (Yang Shik Tso), whose untraditional manner is signified by her short hair and cigarette smoking. She acts flirtatiously, and that night they go out together to a karaoke bar, a form of entertainment that thoroughly befuddles Tharlo.

That the gentle shepherd's life is going to change, and not for the better, upon meeting the free-spirited young woman is not hard to guess. But while the plot developments are predictable, the director imposes an austere style that invests the allegorical proceedings with a fable-like quality. The black & white film is composed of long, static, meticulously composed shots (the press notes claim only 84 in all) that frequently emphasize the central character's feelings of disorientation and dislocation. The sound design also is carefully designed, the loud cacophony of the urban settings dramatically contrasting with the deafening silence of the countryside.

The glacially paced film is ultimately more interesting for its ethnographic and technical aspects than its rudimentary storyline, although the marvelous deadpan performance by Nyima, an acclaimed Tibetan theater performer, provides a much-needed humanistic quality.

Distributor: Icarus Films
Production companies: Beijing Fenghua Times Culture Communication, Beijing YiHe Star Film Production, Heaven Pictures (Beijing) Culture & Media Co., New Heaven Picture Culture & Media
Cast: Shide Nyima, Shik Tso Yang
Director-screenwriter: Pema Tseden
Producers: Leilei Wu, Xuebo Wang
Director of photography: Songye Lu
Production designer: Daktse Dundrup
Editor: Song Bing

Not rated, 123 minutes

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