On Saturday I watched a short film: The Grasslands by Pema Tseden. It is Pema Tseden’s student film, and Latse Contemporary Tibetan Library in the West Village has a copy in their video archives.Pema Tseden — or ‘Wanma Caidan’ as the pinyin transliteration has it so awkwardly — is a talented Tibetan filmmaker who studied at the Beijing Film Academy and has made two feature films in recent years. I have seen both, The Silent Holy Stones and The Search. They are both amazing and excellent: I am deeply in love with The Search. So I was curious to see his student film, curious to see how his directorial vision has evolved, curious to see whether his master talent so clearly displayed in every frame of The Search is manifest in this his first creation.
And yes, yes, it is. The Grasslands is short, only about twenty minutes or so. The film opens with a simple frame: an old couple trekking across the empty grassland under a blue sky. They are Aku Tsendruk, a stubborn old man who just can’t bear any wrongs done to him, and his wife Ama Tsomo, an even older woman who is curled into herself with age and resignation, a passive bystander who is swept in the drift of the current churned up by her aggressive husband.
They are headed to the next nomadic settlement over, to confront three young men who have stolen Ama Tsomo’s yak. As they go on, we learn that the yak is a “liberated” yak; which means that Ama Tsomo had released this yak from slaughter and the yak was a free animal until its theft. So the thieves had compounded their crime which had become a wrong not just against morality but against dharma.
When Aku Tsendruk and Ama Tsomo reach their old friend Dorlo’s tent, his grown son Juga, a pipe-smoking thick-set type with streaming highlander hair, is dispatched to fetch the three men. An elaborate ceremony of oaths follow and the film wraps up with a small twist that manages to convince and satisfy without being either surprising or predictable. The director is talented like that.
After I watched the film, I felt that the film was not about Aku Tsendruk and Ama Tsomo, nor about the other people in the film, so much as it is about a way of life — a way of life where you can take a man’s word when he swears, a way of life where people still “liberate” their prized yaks, a way of life where a radio is as close as the outside world gets to you. It’s about the land that not only sustains but rather reinforces this way of life — the immense rolling plains and mountains that are inseparable from the people who live there.
It’s worth seeing. It’s very worth seeing. Ok it’s worth the trek all the way to Latse. Need I say more?