The Search -- Film Review

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SHANGHAI -- Pema Tseden's "The Search" begins as a quest for actors for a film adaptation of a Tibetan play about Prince Drime Kunden, a saint who gave away all his worldly possessions. It organically evolves into an offbeat cultural album of Tibetan people as well as a cinematic pilgrimage to understand their lifestyles and religious heritage. On another level, it is a simple and poetic evocation of love and how despite its disappointments, people have difficulty letting go.

In addition to winning the Grand Jury Prix of the Jin Jue Awards at Shanghai International Film Festival, "Search" recently screened at the Locarno International Film Festival. From there, the film could springboard to other world-cinema festival niches.

Tseden's style is recognizably influenced by Iranian cinema. In fact, his script is in some aspects a re-working of Abbas Kiarostami's "Through the Olive Trees." Both directors explore unrequited love. The protagonists of "Search" also are members of a film crew -- the director (Manla Kyab), the cameraman, the driver and a businessman who acts as guide.

They arrive in a village wherein resides the best actress to play Drime Kunden's wife. However, the girl (Lumo Tso), refuses to take on the role unless they recruit her ex-lover to play the prince. This is her pretext to patch up their relationship.

As they embark on their journey to find the ex-lover, who teaches in a distant town, the narrative trajectory assumes the discursive philosophical road-movie format of another Kiarostami masterpiece, "Taste of Cherry."

A parallel story expressing inconsolable longing for lost love unfolds as the businessman (Tsondrey) recounts his fateful first love while driving. A close-up through the car window captures with poignancy tears welling up in the girl's pensive eyes.

Her final meeting with the boyfriend (Kathub Tashi) takes place in a school playground. The distanced, stationary shot lasting 2 1/2 minutes gives the impression of time standing still. Not a word between them can be heard, but her heartbreak is palpable. Not once does she take off her scarf to reveal her face, itself a symbol of love's mystery.

A diverse tapestry of Tibetan people passes through the crew's auditions. Some are droll, including cute, young monks who recite mantras like rappers, and others hilarious ham actors. A moving scene of three children so lost in their roles they burst into tears probes the line between art and life.

Through excerpts from the play performed at auditions, one learns about Drime Kunden's transcendence of worldly attachments, symbolized by his donation of his eyes, wife and children to Brahmins. He sets a spiritual example for the protagonists, who suffer because they are attached to their lost loves. As they cannot live up to this ideal, while other characters criticize Kunden for forsaking his family, the film hints at the ambivalent meaning of religious ideals in a modern secular world.

Performances flow with the documentarylike candor of a making-of DVD featurette. The cinematography is formalistic, yielding meticulous compositions of magnificent traveling vistas and poetic long shots of human beings.

Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival
Production: Himalaya Audio & Visual Culture Communication Co. Ltd.
Cast: Manla Kyab, Tsondrey, Lumo Tso, Kathub Tashi
Director-screenwriter: Pema Tseden
Presented by: Pema Tseden, Sangye Gyamtso
Producers: Tseshuk Tso, Sangye Gyamtso
Chief supervisor: Xu Feng
Production supervisors: Tian Zhuangzhuang, Pierre Rissient
Director of photography-art director-costume designer: Sonthar Gyal
Editors: Chen Hailing, Benjamin Illes, Zhou Xing
No rating, 117 minutes