First China-made Tibetan film gets friendly opening

Star said to be reincarnated icon

The first feature film made in China by an all-Tibetan cast and crew opened to the general public here Thursday starring a 12-year-old who people believe is the reincarnation of a Buddhist leader of ancient times.

For decades, Beijing's communist government has suppressed the Tibetan people and their religion across the West China provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Tibet, but the little lama in writer-director Padma Tsedan's "The Silent Holy Stones" smiled for the mostly Chinese crowd at the film's Chinese premiere earlier in the week.

"When I was asked to participate in the film … I saw it was a chance to promote Tibetan culture," Gyapon Tshang said through an interpreter. Tibetan Buddhists believe Tshang to be the eighth reincarnation of a Buddhist leader who worked for human salvation.

Shot in his native Tibetan language with no professional actors, the drama follows Tshang and other young monks as they balance local lore with imported culture.

Set in Tsedan's home village in a mountainous region of Qinghai that the Tibetans call Amdo, "The Silent Holy Stones" depicts the daily life and New Year's rituals of herding families who seem to subsist mostly on chants, faith in their land, and lots of yak butter tea.

Though their home is remote, change is afoot. Young monks watch news of the war in Iraq on China Central Television. Two of them flee a local folk performance to watch Chinese movies on DVD.

"What the film endeavors to depict is the unconscious change that has been going on under the surface of the seeming silence in the relatively secluded land," Tsedan said. "It's a pity that it has taken so long for us to make an all-Tibetan film."

Conspicuously absent from Tsedan's film is the image of the Dalai Lama. In reality, a portrait of the spiritual leader who fled Lhasa in Tibet for India in 1959 is a fixture of many Tibetan Buddhist homes worldwide.

"It's a story about the daily life of the Amdo area, so it's not connected with the Dalai Lama," producer Sang Gyas said.

By working with the Chinese film establishment, Tsedan has gained some visibility in the Tibetan community, where some 100,000 viewers saw the film in Gansu and Qinghai last year.

"He is working to preserve Tibetan culture from a new angle," Yongdrol Tsongkha, a professor of Tibetan ethnic studies at Lanzhou University in Gansu, said, distinguishing Tsedan from Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang or exiled Tibetan director Tenzing Sonam, who are both outsiders to their modern-day subjects.

"Tsedan still lives in that village. Now, many Han Chinese like us and want to work with us," Tsongkha said. "But we all know there are some subjects we cannot touch."

Shot in 46 days for 3 million yuan ($385,000), "Silent" was produced by Beijing Bona Culture Co., Beijing Tongdao Advertising Co. and Tsedan's own Himalaya Film and Video Culture Co.

It is the first film in a "little lama trilogy" that Tsedan has planned. He gained confidence to do them, he said, after the Beijing Film Academy recognized his 2004 short "The Grassland."