What a beautiful and sad film. Set in Tibet, we first meet Tharlo (pronounced tarlo), or Ponytail as he is used to being called, as he recites the words of Mao Tse-tung that he learned by heart when he was nine. He speaks of death being inevitable but not all deaths being the same significance; death after serving the people is ‘heavier than Mount Tai’ but death after serving the fascists is ‘as light as a feather’. He is reciting this to the local police chief who remarks that, with such a memory, he had great promise as a child and his forty years as shepherd, building up a small living, is a waste.
Tharlo must go to a nearby town to get his photo taken for a new ID card, a concept that is strange to him but he accepts as one more thing he must do. He rides there on his motorbike carrying a lamb that he is bottle feeding in a satchel over his shoulder. The photographer sends him across the road to a barber to wash his hair and he strikes up a friendship with the young hairdresser.
Looking back on this film, I can see that the first scene with the recitation shows what is at the heart of this story; a questioning of the meaning of one’s life, the safety of acceptance and the risks of wanting more. Shot in black and white, the camera is always static and many scenes are long, slow single takes where we watch character come in and out of frame. The pace is slow but I found it absorbed me, like a quiet meditation. There are some exquisite scenes – the scene of the married couple being photographed, the two scenes in the hairdresser as Tharlo gets his hair washed and then cut.
I wonder if there is a subtext here about Tibet, with Tharlo representing the old Tibet, the tradition, the land, the simplicity, having to come to terms with the changes wrought by Chinese rule. Everything outside his world seems shallow and his immersion in it cuts him adrift from his principles. The ending is very powerful.
Bechdel test – fail