‘River (Gtsngbo)’: Shanghai Review

River Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Shanghai International Film Festival

River Still - H 2015

A light and tender gem of a festival film.

A tiny Tibetan girl and her shepherd parents struggle to understand each other.

The complexity of human relations is the subject of Tibetan writer-director Sonthar Gyal’s marvelously understated second film, River (Gtsngbo). A small girl of 3 or 4 struggles with her fear of losing her parents' love when her mother gets pregnant and weans her. At the same time, her stubborn klutz of a dad wages a silent war against his own father for what he considers an unforgivable lapse. Tibet’s high, lonely mountains lend the story an aching authenticity, while the comically expressive face of little Yangchen Lhamo (played by Yangchan Lhamu) keeps the mood light and tender.

Though it bowed in Berlin’s Generation K-Plus, this little jewel is perhaps too subtle for young audiences to fully understand. At the same time, its delicacy could have a hard time finding appreciation outside the festival circuit. But it confirms the promise of Gyal, whose 2011 debut film, The Sun-Beaten Path, won the Dragons & Tigers award in Vancouver.

Almost everything is seen through Yangchen’s eyes. With a face both young and old, she surveys the wide, empty expanse of her world, the fields of barley and the family yurt, like Christina in Andrew Wyeth’s painting. (Perhaps it is no accident that Gyal is also a traditional Buddhist painter.) Though old to still be nursing, she’s hurt when her mother (Regzin Drolma) gently pushes her away, and worries that the new addition to the family will displace her. She adopts an orphaned lamb and showers her love on it. Her parents are extremely patient in answering her questions, but she often misunderstands them —for example, when her mom explains that they scatter seeds so plants will grow, she buries her teddy bear in the field, so it will produce more teddy bears to share with her new brother. There are plenty of amusing moments like this, and it is hard to get tired of looking at Lhamu's fascinating face.

Her father, Guru (Guru Tsedan), is totally uncommunicative about his feelings for her. In the first scene, he comically falls off his motorbike on the flat, barren steppes, dead drunk. Later, driving across a frozen riverbed with Yangchen, he manages to drop the bike through a crust of thin ice and almost loses it. Tsedan plays him as not only emotionally wounded, but self-centered and irresponsible, always smoking and mulling over things moodily. People don’t like him because he refuses to visit his father, who now lives in a mountain cave as a holy hermit. But when his reasons come to light, the balance of sympathy shifts in his favor. In the end, Guru seems to become his father’s teacher, as well as vice versa.

Cinematographer Meng Wang paints the brown fields outlined against white mountains as a landscape of the soul, where the little family lives according to the rhythm of the seasons. The film's pace is leisurely, but Kong Jinglei’s editing has a pleasing modernity not afraid of jump cuts.

Production company: Beijing Garuda Film and TV Culture Communication, Zhongshan Culture and Media Shenzhen
Yangchan Lhamu, Regzin Drolma, Guru Tsedan
Sonthar Gyal
Producers: Sangye, Alexandra Sun
Co-producers: Pema Tsedan, Du Qingchun
Executive producers: Sonam Rinchen Gyal, Zhang Jian
Director of photography: Meng Wang
Production and costume designer: Daktse Tongdrup
Editor: Kong Jinglei
Music: Dukar Tserang
World sales:  The Film Library, Hong Kong
No rating, 94 minutes