'The Sweet Requiem' ('Kyoyang Ngarmo'): Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
Intensely personal and emphatically universal filmmaking.

Documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s sophomore narrative feature premiered in Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema program.

More than 10 years after debuting their first feature Dreaming Lhasa at the Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmaking team of Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam return with their follow-up, a solemn drama set within the Tibetan refugee community in India. Similar in tone but boasting a more polished style, along with some gripping Himalayan footage, The Sweet Requiem should be welcomed at international film festivals and could find a niche with boutique distributors or global streamers.

Unlike its predecessor, The Sweet Requiem doesn’t focus on a character named Karma, but the Buddhist concept of action and reaction is central to both the plot and theme of the film. Years after leaving Tibet as a child on a perilous mountain trek accompanied by her father, Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker) has largely internalized the traumatic experience, settling in Delhi’s thriving Tibetan exile community. Glimpsed only in flashback, these early scenes, shot among monochromatic boulder fields and blinding patches of snow, convey a stark, fatalistic tone that emerges again in the pic’s later contemporary segments.

The filmmakers briefly contrast these harsh highland vistas with Dolkar’s early home life, centered in a nomadic herder’s tent isolated on the vast grassland plateau. In a lovely firelit scene, as her parents anxiously discuss their plans to give her a better future in India, young Dolkar (Tenzin Dechen) and her little sister lie safely snuggled in piles of warm blankets. It’s the sort of tender moment that’s largely absent from much of the remainder of the movie, which is often roiled by conflict and doubt.

Eighteen years later, Dolkar has established a close-knit group of friends in Delhi, including her roommate Sonam (Rinchen Palzom) and Dorjee (Shavo Dorjee), an activist devoted to his job at a Tibetan social services center. Among a group of recently arrived refugees, Dorjee begins assisting Gompo (Jampa Kalsang), who’s fleeing Chinese security forces in Lhasa, accused of engaging in subversive activities.

Dolkar unexpectedly recognizes the now 60-ish Gompo as the mountain guide who abandoned her group of refugees on that snow-swept Himalayan pass years ago as they struggled to cross the Tibetan border to sanctuary in India. Suddenly she’s overwhelmed by uncontrollable memories linked to his incomprehensible betrayal. Grief-stricken, Dolkar resolves to unmask Gompo’s treachery and discredit his growing renown as an underground political organizer. 

Representing the latest variation on issues related to Tibet that they’ve explored in nearly two dozen films (primarily documentaries), Sonam and Sarin’s latest feature is deeply personal, although not in the sense that it’s explicitly about either of them. Instead it’s focused on the intensity of personal emotions and how our individual experiences and perceptions shape our motivations and actions.

Believing that Gompo’s abandonment led directly to her father’s death in the mountains, Dolkar seeks retribution in her attempt to destroy his reputation. From his perspective, Gompo was motivated to flee by compassion for his own daughter, lying deathly ill in Lhasa. As often happens with antagonists, though, a greater threat eventually shifts perspectives and intervenes to unite them, despite personal differences.

Dolker, in her first film role, absorbingly inhabits her character with increasing unease. At first appearing to be a well-adjusted young woman with a steady job, Dolkar gradually grows more agitated after Gompo’s arrival. Her internal conflicts playing across her initially stoic features, Dolker effectively unearths Dolkar’s buried trauma in a conflicted response to Gompo’s distress. Kalsang, who appeared in Dreaming Lhasa and several other independent productions, is at his best in the alpine trekking segments, revealing Gompo’s profound unease with neglecting his own family to assist a group of desperate strangers. 

As a veteran filmmaker raised in India by Tibetan refugee parents, Sonam knows his material inside out, but faces the daunting challenge of distilling the sweeping 50-year history of Tibetan migration into a compellingly concise script. Interweaving two distinct storylines linked by recurring characters imbues the narrative with a powerful resonance though, somewhat undercut by the more prosaic contemporary scenes, which lack the same degree of tension as the mountain segments.

Visually, these are also the most galvanizing sequences, shot with flat, unemotional natural light at altitudes up to 15,000 feet in India’s Himalayan region of Ladakh, where even the landscape poses a mortal threat to the fleeing Tibetans. These scenes also reinforce the sobering realization that similar desperate attempts to reach safety in neighboring nations still characterize the tragic reality of the ongoing Tibetan diaspora.

Production companies: White Crane Films, Dialectic
Cast: Tenzin Dolker, Jampa Kalsang, Shavo Dorjee, Lhakpa Tsering, Rabyoung Thonden Gyalkhang, Lhakpa Tsering
Directors: Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam
Screenwriter: Tenzing Sonam
Producers: Ritu Sarin, Shrihari Sathe
Executive producers: Yodon Thonden, Francesca von Habsburg, Vishwanath Alluri
Director of photography: David McFarland
Production designer: Aradhana Seth
Costume designer: Himani Dehlvi
Editor: Jabeen Merchant
Music: Michael Montes
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: White Crane Films

In Tibetan, English
91 minutes