'Ala Changso': Film Review | Shanghai 2018

ALA CHANGSO Still 1 -Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Shanghai Film Festival
Delicate, poetic, exotic.

Tibetan director Sonthar Gyal's psychological drama centered around a religious pilgrimage won the grand jury and screenplay prizes at the Shanghai Film Festival.

Films from Tibet have been winning new fans in the last few years, the most memorable of them being Chinese filmmaker Yang Zhang’s stark tale of a ritual pilgrimage, Paths of the Soul, which has had international art house play. Though more conventionally plotted and almost Western-feeling in its focus on the characters’ intimate psychology, Ala Changso by Tibetan director Sonthar Gyal could be another breakthrough film at the niches. It was one of the big winners at Shanghai, taking home both the grand jury prize and the screenwriting award.

Though Tibet is now an autonomous region of China, there would appear to be no official veto on religious themes, perhaps because Yang Zhang viewed his pious pilgrims with an almost documentary eye, while Sonthar Gyal shifts his focus to interpersonal relations. Regional politics have been touched on exclusively in films shot abroad, like last year’s impressive Barley Fields on the Other Side of the Mountain filmed in India.

Ala Changso sensitively explores a fractured family who undertakes the grueling trek to the holy city of Lhasa on foot. Unlike the spiritually-inspired pilgrims in Paths of the Soul, this husband, wife and son are familiar, down-to-earth creatures. The reason they undertake the trip is not for religious reasons per se, but to ask for a personal boon, that of good health for the ailing wife.

It is not the first time that Gyal has tackled Tibet’s awe-inspiring ancient pilgrimage, in which participants affix wooden boards to their hands and wrap sturdy skin aprons around their bodies to protect them as they proceed across high-altitude mountain roads at a snail’s pace, prostrating themselves every three steps. Gyal's award-winning first film, The Sun-Beaten Path, followed the fate of a distraught young man returning home after such a pilgrimage to Lhasa.

In Ala Changso, the close bond between a husband and his young wife Drolma (the fine Nyima Sungsung) is challenged when she learns she has a life-threatening illness. She puts it down to her failure to make the pilgrimage to Lhasa that she promised her first husband as he lay dying. Hiding her diagnosis and her reasons from her jealous current husband Dorje (warmly played by actor-singer Yungdrung Gyal), she packs her bags.

Before she silently takes off in the company of two girl porters who carry her kit, she pays a visit on her elderly parents in a nearby village. They are taking care of her maladjusted 10-year-old son Norbu (a sulking but expressive Sechok Gyal). This sets the scene nicely, if a bit obviously, for what follows.

From the start, Drolma’s adventure seems destined to fail. The weather is bad. Dorje follows her in his jeep, protesting that she’s too sick to walk (true). The girl porters run off. And after less than a month of walking and prostrating on the road, she’s exhausted. According to Dorje’s calculations, covering five kilometers a day, it’s going to take her a year to reach Lhasa.

Even the presence of her husband, who caves in and accompanies her with the stubborn Norbu in tow, seems unable to change her bad karma. Midway through the film, the story veers in an unexpected direction, one that substantially raises the emotional  stakes and redeals the cards for two of the characters.

The film ends on a perversely abrupt note, as though to undercut any residual sentimentality. Though this is not a terribly moving film, it conveys human feelings that ring true: Drolma’s fear for her life, Dorje’s blinding jealousy, Norbu’s pain at being rejected. The dramatic landscape offers plenty of visual thrills, culminating in the sight of Lhasa at long last, perched inside a ring of mountaintops like Shangri-La.

Originally a cinematographer, Sonthar Gyal makes sensitive use of Tibet’s great scenic beauty which D.P. Wang Weihua turns into a magical landscape of rolling green hills and snowy peaks, donkeys and tractors, and ancient customs that seem deathless. The repetitious score could have done with more variety, however.

Production companies: Garuda Film & TV Culture Communication
Cast: Yungdrung Gyal, Nyima Sungsung, Sechok Gyal
Director: Sonthar Gyal
Screenwriters: Tashi Dawa, Sonthar Gyal
Producers: Yungdrung Gyal, Sonthar Gyal, Liang Zhonghao
Director of photography: Wang Weihua
Production designers: Tsering Dondrub, Daktze Dondrub
Editors: Tsering Wangshug, Sangdak Jyab
Music: Yang Yong
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (competition)
115 minutes