'Paths of the Soul': TIFF Review

Paths to the Soul - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
 A one of its kind journey for true believers.

The visual record of an extraordinary pilgrimage on the road to Tibet.

Premiering in Toronto, where the director’s 1999 Shower won a Fipresci prize, Paths of the Soul (Kang Rinpoche) is filmmaker Zhang Yang’s rigorously conceived and realistically shot study of a devout family of Chinese Buddhists who makes a 1,000-mile pilgrimage to Tibet’s holy mount on foot, bowing to the ground every few steps of the way. Blurring the confines between documentary and fiction, it takes the empathetic viewer on an incredible journey that can be almost as painful to follow vicariously from a theater seat as it must have been on the pilgrims. This is an very limited audience film, yet being one of a kind, it should make festival friends on a wide scale.

This portrait of such otherworldly devotion brings to mind Philippe Witjes and Valerie Berteau’s stirring documentary Himself He Cooks, about the simple humility of those who cook a meal for 50,000 pilgrims every day of the year at the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Here the wonder lies not just in the numbers, but in the fact that the pilgrimage takes place in China, not a country usually associated with spiritual guidance, and involves Tibet, to boot.

Festival veteran Zhang (Sunflower, Quitting, Getting Home) adopts the plainest documentary style to follow his non-professional actors on their grueling journey, which is apparently modeled after real pilgrimages. The first scenes in a village in Yunnan province introduce Nyima (Nyima Zadui), who will lead the group over mountain roads, in sunshine, rain or snow, as they wend their way to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The original impetus comes from his aging uncle Yang Pei, who has a burning desire to make the trip once in his lifetime. Soon others join in to cleanse the bad karma from their lives or, strikingly, to pray for the happiness of other people. A little improbably, a heavily pregnant woman and a young girl join the group, making eleven pilgrims who begin the trek from their native village.

Nothing prepares the viewer for this sight. With Nyima driving a farm tractor that pulls a little wagon of provisions, the others take four or five steps down the paved highway before prostrating themselves on the ground. The ritual bowing includes an thick leather apron and blocks of wood to clap and protect the hands as the pilgrim stretches out on the road. This is repeated over and over, every few steps, for many months.

Progress is slow; the story-telling is unrushed. While the trip is not exactly eventful, things do happen. Nyima calls time out when the pregnant woman goes into labor and delivers her baby in a local hospital — a blessed event, considering he’s born on a holy pilgrimage. The weather turns bad, the tractor turns over, but the pilgrims proceed without missing a beat. They pull the cart uphill and go on prostrating themselves against the backdrop of the high Himalayan landscape, at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Their top speed is 6 miles a day.

Impressive as their devotion is on the road, it exceeds every expectation when they finally reach Lhasa and visit the temples. Not having the money to proceed to the sacred Kang Mountain, they take laborers' jobs right there on the spot, while others agree to walk around the temple and perform 100,000 prostrations, for pay, in the place of a lame old lady.    

Appropriate to its subject, the shooting style is deliberately contained, until Zhang lets the stops out in a spectacular finale. 

Production companies: Helichenguang Intl. Culture Media, LETV Pictures, Le Shi Intl. Information & Technology, KunRunGaoHong Investment Co.

Cast: Yang Pei, Nyima Zadui, Tsewang Dolkar, Tsring Chodron, Seba Jiangcuo

Director, producer, screenwriter: Zhang Yang

Director of photography:  Guo Daming

Editor: Wei Le

Sales Agent: Asian Shadows


115 minutes