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A traditional archery competition forms the foundation of this painfully inspirational and optimistic drama unfolding on the rusty and admittedly highly photogenic expanses of Tibet. Director Pema Tseden has made a name for himself as the only working director in China identified as Tibetan, and in his fourth feature, The Sacred Arrow, he steps back from his preferred analyses and examinations of the modern country in favor of reflecting on its past. It’s reminiscent of Khoroldjorj Choijoovanchig’s Yellow Colt, another film based on a historical inter-village competition, that one in Mongolia. The one-two punch of rare material and astounding visuals will ensure the film a long life among film festivals both in Asia-Pacific and overseas.
Tseden’s previous features, The Silent Holy Stones, The Search and Old Dog, focused a great deal of effort on demythologizing Tibet, especially in the West, as some kind of ultra holy space populated purely by philosophers and poets, and showcased the contemporary side that dealt with the same daily issues that most people around the world do. He never really threatened Beijing’s official line—narratively or thematically—and managed to maintain a uniquely Tibetan voice while doing so. Similarly The Sacred Arrow’s story exists in a vacuum free of any social or geographical context and trades in a facile morality, if it can even be called that.
Ironically Tseden takes a tiny step backwards for Arrow, anchoring the story in history, though he maintains the modern time frame. The Amdo Tibetan archery competition is an ancient one that ushers boys into adulthood and connects the villages and villagers to their collective history. The people of Lhalong and Damo have maintained a friendly rivalry and lived in peace for centuries, no matter whose archers dominated the contest from year to year. This year, however, Lhalong’s best, Dradong (Renqing Dunzhu), is incensed at losing the legendary Sacred Arrow to Damo’s finest, Nyima (SonamNyima, a natural born movie star if only a moderate actor), a humble man in love with Dradong’s sister Dekyid (Dekyid, radiant). His loss is the first in a chain reaction of unfortunate instances, including a head wound for Nyima, the village kids getting into the challenging spirit, and the Lhalong archers eventually stooping to modern conveniences worthy of Oliver Queen to win the next contest. A second humiliating one-on-one defeat for Dradong eventually leads him and Nyima at a “neutral” competition in the city, with the final result declaring them equals. All is forgiven and forgotten in a forced conflict resolution.
As pleasant, and beautiful, a diversion as The Sacred Arrow is, there’s not much in the way of depth to the story. The predictable nature of the plot isn’t really the problem either; it’s a conventional rival brothers story and how it ends is a foregone conclusion. In itself that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the film’s already archetypical characters are simplified to the point of anonymity and never lend the story any measure of drama or inspire investment in them. Nyima, as the “good” guy, flirts with sainthood he’s so tolerant and willing to make peace. Dradong is the more interesting of the two, but he’s a sketch more than a character. As the antagonist, his “bad” guy behavior is never explored and the source of his seething rage is never illuminated. He remains a mystery throughout. Dekyid has all the personality of a houseplant, and in typical movie fashion she has other men deciding her life for her—until she makes the decision to sacrifice her happiness for one of them.
Director of photography Luo Pan has plenty to work with in the Tibetan landscape in all its rocky, barren beauty and he exploits it wonderfully. The rich, almost preternatural color looks expressionistic at times (even more so with interiors) and it’s all so eye-catching it’s easy to miss the subtle lament for the traditions being lost to the ever-progressing world, expressed best by Dradong’s father (Lobsang Chospel) and the Village Chief’s (Dobskyab) bafflement over Dradon and Nyima’s willingness to constantly be at odds. It may not be the most thought-provoking film out of China in a last few years, but its stunning visuals, Ricky Ho’s rousing East meets West score and spotlight on a little known aspect of Tibetan culture make it worth at least a passing glance.
Production company: Beijing Himalaya Audio & Visual Culture Communication
Cast: Renqing Dunzhu, SonamNyima, Dekyid, Dobskyab, Lobsang Chospel
Director: Pema Tseden
Screenwriter: Pema Tseden
Producer: Sangye Gyamtso
Executive producer: Sangye Gyamtso
Director of photography: Luo Pan
Production designer: HodoyamaYiho
Editor: Liu Fang
Music: Ricky Ho
No rating, 97 minutes
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