Tibet is a subject that, for many in the West, can be reduced to a few simple thoughts: The People’s Republic of China invaded it back in 1950; until occupation its population was largely made up of Buddhist monks; the Dalai Lama is a very nice guy whom many people seem to respect; sovereignty for the former country seems like a reasonable idea; Brad Pitt went there once for filming of a movie and the local women found him less attractive than David Thewlis.
But Tibet is a large place with a long history and, according to Angry Monk: Reflections on Tibet director Luc Schaedler, it cannot be reduced to such simple descriptors. Rather, he argues in his film, it is a place where conflicting forces had existed long before the arrival of the Chinese, a point he illustrates by focusing on the life of a local legend, a lapsed monk by the name of Gendun Choephel. While Shcaedler’s point is valid, his examination of the region, and of the admittedly fascinating Choephel, is too cursory to really correct the problem he sees in the world’s view of this isolated patch of the Earth.
Angry Monk was filmed at an interesting time in Tibet’s history. Schaedler arrived there in 2004 (after failing to make it in 1989, thanks to a popular uprising that turned violent), at a point where it had been years since any major rebellion had occurred against the rulers in Beijing. The protests and subsequent violence in Lhasa in 2008 have led to a clampdown, both military and political, that recalls earlier eras of Communist totalitarianism.
But at the time of Schaedler’s arrival, people were relatively free to speak their minds about the Chinese government. For the most part, what the people Schaedler interviews have to say is not very flattering. They hurtle insults at the Chinese Communist Party and even use posters depicting Mao Zedong and his cohorts to scare “lesser demons” away from their stores. It’s intriguing to see these views coming out of the mouths of working Tibetans who still live in places like Lhasa or Labrang, rather than the exiled monks Western audiences are more used to seeing, and Schaedler manages to add a little humor to the interviews by contrasting his subjects’ critiques with images of giant propaganda posters erected by the Party, in which “the Tibetan people” thank the Chinese government for all the good things in their lives.
Schaedler eventually latches on to Gendun Choephel, an early 20th-century Tibetan who is still a hero to many of his people. Choephel, Schaedler claims, is the key to understanding the conflicting forces that exist in Tibet, and so he embarks on a journey to follow the footsteps of a man who spent much of his life on the road. He starts in the countryside, where Choephel was born and believed to be the reincarnation of a famous Lama. Choephel soon joins a monastery, where his strong but unusual mind makes him stand out amongst his peers and he eventually moves onto Lhasa, where his political philosophy begins to take shape. His interest in foreign cultures and Asian history later cause him to abandon monastic life and travel to India, where he spends 10 years crisscrossing the subcontinent trying to gain more knowledge about the world. In the end, he returns to his homeland, but remains a political dissident, which has a negative affect on his remaining years of life.
Choephel’s story is told through Schaedler’s filming of the areas he traveled to, drawing from archival footage from the ‘20s through ‘40s when Choephel lived, and interviews with Tibetan writers and scholars, as well as several contemporaries of the former monk (an amazing number of whom are alive and, notably, in great shape). What emerges is a picture of a man unique of his time.
Choephel was a religious man from the countryside who believed in modern progress for his country. He fiercely criticized the conservative forces that led his country into isolation in the ‘30s, but at the same time had a keen eye for the injustices that pervaded the British colonial system to the south. He took an intense interest in Tibet’s history, usually taught children through myths and legends, which glossed over the actual political and military developments Tibet had made during its long existence.
He was also a distinctive visual artist, who embraced realism in his drawings while his contemporaries were simply copying the ancient religious images. His social life was unusual for a monk too, in that he liked to drink, smoke, and have sexual relations with numerous women. He even went so far as to translate the Kama Sutra into Tibetan, which caused a bit of a scandal amongst the ruling elite back in Lhasa.
Schaedler tries hard to explain that Choephel’s way of life represents a side of Tibet just as real as that of chanting monks and burning incense, but unfortunately he doesn’t dig quite deep enough to help his point hit home. Despite all the interviews with friends and quotes from the man himself, the audience never really learns much more about Choephel than where he lived at various times, and how good he was at debating. His political views are addressed in the vaguest of terms – which makes it hard to understand what exactly it was he had to offer—and his eventual downfall seems anti-climactic.
Upon returning to Lhasa, you see, Choephel was arrested due to some slightly rebellious writings which had caught the authorities’ eye as they were gaudily decorated with the Communist symbol of hammer and sickle. The ruling monks in Lhasa threw Choephel in jail, where he lost most of his drive, leading him to emerge at the end of his sentence as a broken man who smoked and drank his way through his remaining days.
Schaedler seems to want to keep the circumstances of Choephel’s final years a mystery until the end of his documentary, but it’s a bad strategy given that all the secrecy leads the viewer to expect something more satisfying than being informed that the hero of the tale was thrown in jail and died without seeing any of his dreams come true. A better plan may have been to explain from the beginning that Choephel’s story is a tragic one about a man who was ahead of his time, and suffered for it because it put him up against a ruling class too stubborn to see that it was planting the seeds of its own demise. That way, Schaedler’s audience would have understood that the respect shown Choephel by the writers and scholars the director interviews is a bittersweet reward for a man who was punished for his views in his own era. As the films stands, the viewer spends most of the movie wandering when he or she is going to see the great achievement that made Choephel such a lasting celebrity, an event that Schaedler knows will never come.
But the director doesn’t fail completely in his goal of showing the world another side of Tibet and its culture. One interesting point he successfully makes is that, even though much of Tibet’s male population was part of the monastery system prior to the invasion, there was a deep divide between the educated, upper-class monks and their illiterate, rural brethren, who were often little more than laborers on the monasteries’ estates. Schaedler manages to show his audience that not all pre-1950 Tibetans spent their time poring over sutras or attempting to levitate (the latter an idea that the director mocks throughout his film), especially in scenes where Choephel’s old monastery pals use surprisingly (and hilariously) crude language to describe their Chinese governors or Choephel’s various adventures.
The footage is mostly filmed with a handheld camera in guerilla-style, as Schaedler and his cameraman had to keep their project a secret from the authorities while in Tibet. This doesn’t stop them from capturing some gorgeous scenes of Tibet’s wild countryside, or of the lusher landscapes of the many Indian regions Choephel traveled through during his long tour of the country. Unfortunately, there is no behind-the-scenes account of the production available as an extra on the DVD, just a (small) selection of quotes from Choephel and a brief interview with Schaedler.
Angry Monk: Reflections on Tibet has a noble goal, in that it wants to add depth to the portrayal of a country which is often best known through fanciful action movies or concerts organized by the Beastie Boys. It shows aspects of daily life in recent years that are rarely seen by non-Tibetan eyes, and it somewhat explores the political conflicts of the era leading up to Tibet’s absorption into the PRC. It’s just too bad the film doesn’t engage its subjects a little more deeply, because the lesson Schaedler is trying to teach is certainly one worth hearing.