Director: Khyentse Norbu
Year: 2003
Country: Bhutan

Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist monarchy nestled in the Himalayas, with only a handful of locally produced films. I’ve chosen Travellers and Magicians, the first feature film to be shot entirely in the country. The film comes from an unusual pool of talent: the director is a reincarnate lama of Tibetan Buddhism and the cast is mostly comprised of non-professional actors.

The film follows Dondup, a low-ranking government official stationed in a remote Bhutanese village. When we meet him he is frustrated by his slow and uneventful life, but fascinated by the United States, and longs to travel there some day. He prefers American rock & roll to the local music, his bedroom walls are covered in posters of Western celebrities, and his traditional “gho” robe is even made of denim.

Dondup longs to leave his homeland and travel to America.

His opportunity arises when he receives news that there is a job opening for him in America, but there’s a catch. He needs to reach Thimphu, the capital city, within four days or the offer will close. Alas, Dondup misses the only bus, and so is forced to hitchhike through the Bhutanese countryside or miss his chance.

Dondup waits impatiently for a passing car.

From this point the film essentially becomes a road movie – focusing on Dondup’s travels and his relationships with the various people he meets along the way. They include an apple seller, a drunk, an elderly paper maker and his daughter, and a Buddhist monk. The latter is of special significance, as he tells Dondup a fable about a restless farmboy whose dream of becoming a wizard leads to disaster. This fable is shown to us as a dreamlike story-within-the-story, and has obvious parallels to Dondup’s own dissatisfaction and journey.

The story the monk tells Dondup is presented with an ethereal, magical atmosphere.

Over the course of the film, Dondup must decide whether a life in America is what he truly wants, or if he should stay in Bhutan and find a simpler, more fulfilling life in his village. The visuals are very arresting – the stunning mountain landscape of Bhutan lends itself very well to stories of spiritual discovery. The quirky and varied procession of characters that he meets on the way to Thimphu are a pleasure to meet, and Dondup himself has some moments of unexpected poignancy. I enjoyed Travellers and Magicians, and fully recommend it.


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