'Golden Kingdom': Berlin Review

Golden Kingdom Still - H 2015
Bella Halben/Bank & Shoal

Golden Kingdom Still - H 2015

A measured, meditative piece attuned to the cultural specifics of its local subjects.  

U.S. filmmaker Brian Perkins' first feature revolves around a young Burmese monk's rite of passage as he ventures from his monastery into a land of disappearances, deaths and evil deities.

The latest in a line of foreigner-helmed Southeast Asian feature films — among them Kim Mordaunt's Laos-set drama The Rocket and Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson's Cambodian lovers-on-the-run thriller Ruin - Golden Kingdom matches, if not trumps its predecessors by retaining the specific local colors of its Myanmar setting while also evoking the universalism of its child protagonists' struggle in understanding the strange world out there beyond the home.

With his first (and partly crowd-funded) feature, Brian Perkins has shown a vivid visual imagination while never allowing that faculty (or that of his American-German creative team) to spiral out of control and into the perpetuation of exotica. The Oregonian director-screenwriter has produced a film markedly attuned to his characters' circumstances. People emerge, vanish and reappear without a dramatic flourish, while parables inevitably stop short of offering a set-in-stone moral. All this correlates with the film's young monks pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment, as they practice meditation with a spiritual goal of seeing mortal objects and occurrences as being impermanent and in flux.

Golden Kingdom's theological backbone is fleshed out by a warm and endearing portrayal of its characters' childhood innocence. Perkins' technical expertise only works with the natural performances from his four young nonprofessional actors, with Shine Htet Zaw delivering a remarkable turn as the leader of the group. Fit for festivals of multiple strands, more bookings in the circuit should follow after its bow at the Berlinale's young-audience-oriented Generation Kplus sidebar last month.

Set and shot in a remote (and real) monastery in Shan State — a region in which separatists have fought a decadeslong war against the Myanmar government — Golden Kingdom begins with its focus evenly spread among its ensemble of four young monks living under the auspices of their abbot (U Zaw Ti Ka). In place of excessive exposition, Bella Halben's camerawork and David C. Hughes' sound design provide ample hints at the boys' existence and trials: Close-ups during prayer sessions reveal limbs dotted with scars and skin blotches, while the idyllic (or isolated) ambiance comes across through the crisp sounds of cicadas, birds, rustling leaves and trickling water over the novices' chants.

Then again, they are children after all, as evidenced by their pillow-fighting bouts before lights-out. Their mortal knack for mischief is brought more into the open when their master receives a letter and leaves for the city to attend to some business. Their initial thrill at some slight degree of freedom from routine, however, is soon tempered by uncertainty, as the farmer who brings them food suddenly ceases to visit and strange sounds — ranging from explosions to ethereal squeals — signal impending peril.

This confusion soon emerges in material form as the boys encounter people in various level of distress due to the unrest beyond the monastery's walls. The burden of connecting with what's out there, specifically, is imposed on the eldest of the group, Witazara (Shine Htet), who embarks on a journey marked by sights of pain, anguish and death — and also a confrontation with his own past.

Mystery abounds, and Halben's camerawork heightens the boys' terror as they confront towering trees or equally physically overwhelming gun-toting soldiers. The politics, meanwhile, are woven gently into the story — monks, after all, occupy a very important role in the long struggle to end authoritarian rule in Myanmar, their sacrifices documented in, among others, Anders Ostergaard's 2009 documentary Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country. Now that Myanmar has finally opened its doors, different questions could be asked about lives in the country; in this respect, Golden Kingdom glimpses but never flaunts easy answers, leaving the viewer to absorb the ambiance and think beyond the headlines.

Production company: Bank & Shoal
Cast: Shine Htet Zaw, Ko Yin Saw Ri, Ko Yin Than Maung, Ko Yin Maung Sein, U Zaw Ti Ka
Director-screenwriter: Brian Perkins
Producers: Brian Perkins, Matt O'Connor, U Than Htay
Executive producers: Jessica Ballard, Marshall Brandt
Director of photography: Bella Halben
Editor: Sebastian Bonde
Composer/sound designer: David C. Hughes
International Sales: WIDE
In Burmese
No rating, 103 minutes