'Becoming Who I Was': Film Review

A doc packing much more charm than its esoteric-sounding subject might suggest.

Chang-Yong Moon and Jin Jeon's debut doc follows a young Indian boy believed to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

An aging man of humble means tries to help a boy he believes is a reincarnated monk in Chang-Yong Moon and Jin Jeon's Becoming Who I Was, an unexpectedly crowd-friendly documentary debut. Built around the adorable tot Padma Angdu, who we meet at 9 years old, the film doesn't just boast the sweet-kid factor that, every few years, turns an unlikely art house pic into a hit; it also gets so much mileage out of its remote mountain settings that it looks better than most multimillion-dollar features. Having had some good audience response on the fest circuit (and picking up awards at Berlin, Seattle and elsewhere), it seems a good bet for a well-promoted art house run.

Though we never really learn the details of the discovery, Padma was identified at 5 years old as a rinpoche, the reincarnation of an important Tibetan Buddhist monk. Born in India's far-north Ladakh, his previous life was in the distant Kham region of Tibet. Since his "enthronement" ceremony in 2010, he has lived in a Ladakh monastery and awaited the time when his former disciples in Tibet would come to bring him home. Until then, he is cared for by Urgain Rigzin, a practitioner of traditional medicine. (Again, the film is vague about how this teacher was paired with this boy.)

At first, the doc focuses on observing how this rinpoche, who claims to have memories of his previous life and can tell his elders "strange things" that convince them as well, is also just a kid, and a lovable one at that. He's embarrassed to be shorter than the friends he plays with, and is skittish where they are bold; he giggles as he learns how to use the long horn local monks blow. Then the Ladakh monastery, after five years, decides he has waited with them long enough. He is cast out and must live with Urgain, who gives up his other work to care for him.

"The memories of my past keep fading away," the child says during this dark period. Locals begin to doubt his identity, and he grows stubborn. Urgain sends him to a teacher who might be more helpful, but Padma comes back homesick. Together again, they set out for Kham, in search of the rinpoche's previous monastery.

Penniless, the hitchhikers take the long way, through Central India, because of hostility to monks across the border. (Some onscreen maps of their journey would be helpful.) The film becomes a real-life road movie, as its unlikely duo catches rides with truckers, cowers on the street in intimidatingly large cities and relies on the kindness of strangers.

The directors here prefer easygoing observation to artificially heightened drama. So while we're sighing over the vast mountain ranges behind the two trekking figures, they make sure to capture small interactions between man and child that cement their grandparent-like bond. The sincerity of Urgain's devotion, easy to understand, balances well with the more novel flavor of Padma's mission. As viewers, we have no idea whether the doc's last act is building toward a triumphant reunion or a big dead end. Suffice to say that the final scenes, never manipulative, achieve an emotional impact appropriate to the scale of this journey.

Production company: Sonamu Pictures
Directors-producers-editors: Moon Chang-Yong, Jeon Jin
Venue: Doc Fortnight, Museum of Modern Art

In Ladakhi, Tibetan, Hindi
94 minutes