Tibet from the Inside
The World Cup and Tibetan Monks are not the two topics most likely to pack Americans into cinemas. A combination of the two may actually frighten away some viewers. But first-time director Khyentse Norbu’s film about these two topics, The Cup, deserves an audience, perhaps particularly an U.S. audience, in part because it imagines and indeed, promotes, a sense of global community (no snickering please). The film also reveals at least it feels like a revelation that the monks are very similar to people who regularly go to movies.
Reportedly, this is the first film from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and the first film in the Tibetan language, and anyone who sees it will likely look forward to the next film from Bhutan or in the Tibetan language fortunate enough to get world wide distribution. The story, which is based on fact, begins in 1998 as two boys, Palden (Kunzang Nyima) and his nephew Nyima (Pema Tshundup), arrive at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India. The older boy shares a room with the mildly rebellious Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro, playing himself). Orgyen is obsessed with football (called “soccer” in the U.S.) and is in the habit of sneaking out at night to watch the World Cup matches at a tavern. One night, he, Palden, and two others are caught coming home from the tavern by Geko (Orgyen Tobgyal), who actively oversees the monastery under the Abbot. The Abbot (Lama Chonjor) decides not to punish them, however, after being reassured that there is no sex in this event in which “two civilized nations fight over a ball.”
After giving the matter some thought, Orgyen figures that Geko objects to their sneaking out at night, so he convinces Geko to let them rent a tv to watch the final match. And so it happens that everyone at the monastery is watching as France, a nation Orgyen says has always supported Tibet, wins the World Cup.
The plot is simple enough, and the film is beautifully photographed. Other than the usual barriers that international films face in the U.S., why is this film likely to be a tough sell for Fine Line? Football is one reason. Though the World Cup is truly a world-wide phenomenon, and The Cup shows that even Tibetan monks are transfixed by it, the fact is that people in the States remain largely uninterested in the sport. The Women’s World Cup last year was exciting, particularly because the U.S. team won, but the U.S. men’s team has fallen well short of such achievement. So, despite enthusiastic teams and intense media pressure (especially when networks have invested in televising matches), the sport remains something U.S. children play through junior high school and then abandon like yesterday’s Ricky Martin cd.
Another reason the film might not find the audience it should is that U.S. viewers don’t exactly clamor for movies about Tibet. Many artists Richard Gere, for one notable example have donated time and money to raising public awareness of Tibet’s occupation by Chinese forces, the Dalai Lama’s exile, and the exile of many monks, in India and elsewhere, all hoping that the Dali Lama’s passive resistance will eventually effect change. And for many young people, “Tibet” means two words: Beastie Boys. This band in particular has worked for the cause over the last few years, by organizing massive benefit concerts (aptly named “Free Tibet”). Still, the U.S. government seems to regard all these protests and discussions as if they are yesterday’s Ricky Martin CD.
Though Norbu’s film focuses on the monks’ community as it contrasts and compares with the World Cup as global “event,” it also includes a few moments of critique. For one thing, the monks’ privation is a direct result of the actions of the Chinese. They remark on the “rotten” Chinese rice they eat, and the Abbot keeps his things packed, hoping for the opportunity to return to Tibet. And then the film closes with a series of titles which give updates on the characters, including one which reveals that Orygen dreams of a Tibetan World Cup Team. The final title, however, says that the “Chinese are still serving rice in Tibet,” reminding the audience that, for all the uplift in the film, problems remain in the real world.
Such critique, however, never overshadows the film’s celebration of the monks’ spiritual freedom and joys in life. Because he is a Tibetan Buddhist monk himself, Norbu doesn’t observe them from a distance. Viewers come away with a sense of the daily life of young monks, as we see the boys at prayers and studying in their rooms at night. The young monks pass notes back and forth during prayers like boys at summer camp and play “kick the can” while brushing their teeth. Viewers can take pleasure in seeing the inside of a monastery and in the beautiful Indian countryside, but Norbu does not permit us to coast along like tourists. The tone of the film is too warm and the events are presented too matter-of-factly for most viewers to remain uninvolved with the characters.
This sense of identification also enacts and underscores the film’s “message,” that everyone needs a sense of community, that everyone should take care of others. At first, Orgyen thinks only of himself as he rounds up money to rent the television and satellite dish. He even has Palden convince Nyima to give up a watch from his mother to aid the effort. Later, as the game progresses, Orgyen looks from the television screen to Nyima’s increasingly unhappy face and realizes his error. Later, as Orgyen gathers up his possessions, including a gift from his own mother, Geko enters, knows what is occurring, and says that he and the Abbot will pay the amount necessary to return the watch to Nyima. He also says he’s pleased that Orgyen is thinking of others rather than only about himself. The film does not dwell on Orgyen’s education but makes its importance quite clear, as Geko says his student will be a good monk and the film cuts between the two warmly smiling faces.
His transformation is performed effectively by the young and engaging Jamyang Lodro. Like the rest of the cast, he is not an actor, but a student who lives in the Chokling Monastery. The nonprofessional actors lend authenticity to the scenes in the monastery and only occasionally does the viewer sense that anyone is trying to “act.” The Cup‘s very structure seems to follow their lead: when the boys begin collecting money to rent the television, their energy is mirrored in the film’s increased pace. While the film doesn’t provide “leads” in the usual Hollywood sense, the ensemble delivers subtle performances, the uncluttered framings are artful, and the humor is endearing, more likely to solicit slight smiles than laughter.
The Cup uses the World Cup as a symbol for the potential unity of people from different countries or backgrounds. The event is one thing that the majority of the world can agree to watch together, even though the event itself is competitive. The film made me ponder all of this and more. I left the theater thinking that U.S. lack of interest in the sport suggests that the nation remains too insular, too aloof, too self-absorbed. This film might focus viewers’ attention however briefly on the need for a greater sense of global community.
The film’s closing voice-over from the Abbot says that we all need to think of others, to “love others as I love myself.” This clearly expresses the film’s primary theme, as it applies not only to Tibetan monks or those who similarly pursue an ascetic life. After watching these boys obsess about football and play kick the can, we might envision them listening to the Beastie Boys too, independent of the fact that the band works to bring attention to them; they are novice monks, but they are still boys. The thought of Tibetan monks trying to count the samples on Hello Nasty! is great fun to imagine, and comforting to this viewer.