Few films promise as enticing a glimpse into such an iconic but unknown reality as "Dreaming Lhasa" does; the title itself evokes a descriptive yearning. Seeking to explore the dynamics of Tibetan cultural identity in the absence of a homeland denied independence, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam's feature debut focuses on a specific space: Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan government and citizens have sought refuge from Chinese persecution.
In protagonist Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso), the filmmakers have created an intriguing composite. The Tibetan New Yorker - so explicitly American with her blond-streaked ponytails, denim jacket, and hoodie that when children see her coming, they issue cries of "Hey, it's a Western girl!" - travels to Dharamsala to interview former political prisoners for a documentary. Embodying other views into the complications of Tibetan nationality are Jingme (Tenzin Jingme), born and raised in India, and Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), a recent refugee. As in many politically tinged movies, the growing attraction between individuals (in this case, Karma and Dhondup) signifies a growing understanding of her heritage, and possibly shifting allegiance (solidified by allusions to Karma's eroding relationship back home with an Anglo-monikered Max).
Beautifully shot in deep, dank colors, "Dreaming Lhasa" has a gorgeous surface amidst which the interspersed interviews stand out for their arresting, high-contrast lighting. These testimonials are often moving (some, according to the press notes, delivered by real-life counterparts) but too often these "documentary" segments feel more alive than the narrative proper. The rest of the narrative, built around Dhondup's quest to fulfill his dying mother's wish to return a charm box to an elusive resistance fighter (with Karma's help), is organized so didactically - overriding deeper cultural investigations and seemingly pitched to the shallow fascination of tourists - it plays like a guided whistle-stop whirl through Tibet's past and present. Visiting an oracle, paying respects to a hunger-striker, speaking with monks and older-generation refugees, the search becomes too literalized, an obviousness not mitigated by the amateur abilities of the lead cast. Difficult to say how much more lyrical the movie might've been with experienced actors, but the performances here severely curtail engagement with the story and exacerbate the script's tendency towards unnecessary underscoring along the lines of Karma's statement, "You know, the more I learn about Tibet, the more I feel like a complete stranger."
Though "Dreaming Lhasa" ultimately relies on too simplistic a conceit, it does unwrap Tibetan culture from the timeless ideal it represents in the popular imagination to reveal its modern complexities (even as it reaffirms the romantic conception), and it's clearly made with love by its Tibetan directors. The film also produces some graceful moments which detach from the story at large and give voice to fuller feeling, as when Jingme, jamming with his reggae-styled band, breaks out repeatedly into a lamentful chorus: "the bones of our fingers hurt . . ." In these fleeting instances, "Lhasa" conveys the anguish of a people whose nation can only be actively conjured, but not visited.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York's Film Forum.]