'Barley Fields on the Other Side of the Mountain': Film Review | Mumbai 2017

BARLEY FIELDS Still 1 -Publicity-H 2017
An outspoken look at Tibetans under Chinese rule.

Tibetan farmers demand their freedom in writer-director Tian Tsering’s first feature.

Not just another immigrant story, Tian Tsering’s sober vision of Tibetan peasants living under Chinese rule, Barley Fields on the Other Side of the Mountain, draws its power from its direct and straightforward storytelling. The heroine is a headstrong 16-year-old girl who labors away in her family’s barley fields, until the day her father is arrested. Her wrenching search for him and quest for her own freedom point at a one-way, no-return trek to India that implies never seeing part of her family again.

Tucked away in the Mumbai Film Festival’s world cinema section, this first feature describes the quiet rebellion of the farmers with a startling frankness that should grab festival attention and play meaningfully to special-interest groups. Tsering, a talented Chinese expat director, wrote the screenplay in film school with Beru Tessema. Though unable to shoot in Tibet itself, he tracked down authentic refugees in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile surrounded by tens of thousands of Tibetans who have fled their homeland. The film brings out the personal costs, suffering and risks they took.

With her red cheeks, flying braids and long dress, barley harvester Pema (played with spunky naturalness by non-pro Tsering Choekyi) seems to have stepped out of the pages of a National Geographic spread. Her remote village atop a big gray mountain appears idyllic and impregnable, but this doesn’t protect her family from the Chinese soldiers who come to arrest Pema's beloved father. He has been glimpsed leading clandestine free-Tibet meetings, and when he is roughly taken away, Pema’s world is shattered.

Her tough-minded mother is busy with her younger siblings and unresponsive to Pema’s anxiety, but the girl finds some consolation at a local Buddhist convent. One of the shaven-headed, red-robed nuns, Choeden (Jamyang Choezom), comforts her with the thought that even the nuns are sometimes taken in for questioning and re-education, but they do come back.

But her father, who is honored in the village as a great man fighting to free Tibet, does not return. Whether out of despair, hero worship or budding ideological conviction, Pema makes up her mind to leave home and join Choeden and others on a long walk to freedom. They plan to cross the mountains on foot to reach Nepal in a month, then push on to India in the shadow of the huge peaks, braving the cold and starvation. She doesn't realize that the main danger of the journey is being caught by the Chinese border guards, who are fully armed.

The story moves briskly and little time is spent probing the heroine’s psychology or exploring her father’s political ideas and goals, which can sometimes make the film seem a bit flimsy. On one hand, much of its realism comes from Tsering’s choice to use a quasi-documentary style of shooting in which the camera, usually fixed to one spot, is a neutral observer. A repeated shot of the family having dinner around a heater mixes silence with bursts of natural conversation. But this apparent neutrality leaves a lot of interpretation up to the viewer; for example, the tense relationship between Pema and her mother, who is never seen without a baby in her arms.

A more communicative character is Choeden the nun, whose spiritual side takes a backseat to her political fervor. While Pema’s rebellious behavior has made her something of an outcast in the village, Choeden is drawn to her, in part because she views her father as a great freedom fighter and wants Pema to emulate him. Considering that even a picture of the Dalai Lama used during prayers in the house has to be hidden away, and that the risky freedom treks to Nepal and India originate at the convent, one can see the thread linking the Buddhists to passive rebellion.  

A great sense of silence and majesty emerge from Jigment Wangchuk’s cinematography on location in the Spiti Valley high in India’s Himalayas, the towering rock faces enveloped in a gentle ivory light. The musical commentary is drawn from a variety of contrasting sources that add depth, whether it is cello and strings or the sad twang of traditional Chinese songs.

Production company: Tashi Films, Seme Films
Cast: Tsering Choekyi, Pema Chokey, Samten Dhondup, Jamyang Choezom
Director: Tian Tsering
Screenwriters: Tian Tsering, Beru Tessema
Producers: Tian Tsering, Rahul Ravindran
Director of photography: Jigment Wangchuk
Editor: Sofia Bost
Music: Jasmin Kent Rodgman, Tsering Choekyi, Pema Chokey, Samten Dhondup, Jamyang Choezom
World sales: Visit Films
Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (World Cinema)

88 minutes