One reliable staple of the festival and art house circuit is the slow-moving tale of rural life, often set in a developing country, featuring a fable-like story enacted by a largely unknown cast of locals and composed primarily of long shots that would not be out of place in an observational documentary. Tharlo, by the noted Tibetan director Pema Tseden, fits squarely into this genre, fulfilling its requirements well without bringing a lot that’s new to the table.
Tharlo (Shide Nyima, a stage actor in Tibet) stood out among his childhood peers thanks to his phenomenal memory. Even as an adult, he can rattle off long segments of his primary school lessons praising Chairman Mao, but due to poverty he never had a chance to develop his intellect formally. Instead, he was sent to work as a sheepherder, and that’s what he’s done ever since. This might sound like a sad story, but Tharlo is happy with his simple life and is certainly not concerned about what goes on in the big world outside his rural milieu.
Then one day, Tharlo must venture forth to a nearby city to have his photograph taken for an official identity card. He doesn’t see the need, declaring that he already knows who he is, and so does everyone else he encounters, but the local police chief (Tsemdo Thar) says it must be done. So Tharlo heads off on his motorbike, bringing along a young lamb which he is bottle feeding, one of several rather obvious symbols in this fable about rural/male innocence and urban/female treachery.
When Tharlo enters the photo studio to which he has been referred, a newly married couple are posing in traditional Chinese clothing in front of a backdrop of New York City. He doesn’t react to this bizarre scene, nor does he protest when the photographer advises him to clean up a bit before having his picture taken. As in a classic film noir, the seemingly innocent act of getting his hair washed in a hairdresser’s shop has repercussions far beyond anything he could have imagined.
The ID card symbolizes Chinese intrusion into traditional Tibetan life, and in another piece of symbolism, Tharlo is told to remove his amulet (which represents his Tibetan identity) before the picture is taken. Still, he goes along with the process amiably enough, and plans to leave town as soon as the photograph is ready. But the young woman (Yangsto, played by Yangshik Tso) who washed his hair has another idea. She’s been watching him from her shop window, and just happens to meet him on the street when he leaves the photographer’s shop. In quick succession, she treats him to a snack and proposes they meet that evening in a karaoke bar, something he’s never even contemplated doing before.
Alarm bells should be ringing in your head by now. Why would a pretty young woman, sporting a modern haircut and clothing, be interested in a middle-aged guy whose hygiene is spotty and who spends most of his time around sheep? It doesn’t take long for Yangsto to show her true colors, as she gets Tharlo drunk, takes him back to her flat, and proposes he sell his sheep and use the money to take her to see the world. That’s enough to finally awaken his sense of self-preservation and send him running for his life.
Tharlo returns to his herd, and much of the film’s middle section is spent observing his daily routine as he tends his sheep, feeds his dog, performs domestic chores in his small hut, and listens to the radio at night. This was enough for Tharlo before, but since that fateful trip to the city, he’s no longer satisfied with his lonely existence. Poor Tharlo is as doomed as Tom Neal’s character in Detour, with Yangsto taking on the stereotypical role of the femme fatale (and as she is merely a plot device, her character is not developed at all).
Tharlo begs to be read as an allegory of Tibetan abuse at the hands of the occupying Chinese, which may partly excuse its heavy-handed misogyny. Still, for a film set in a region where discrimination against women is commonplace, it’s disappointing to see such a tired sexist trope employed. That quibble aside, Tharlo a beautiful film, composed mostly of long takes with a still camera at middle or long distance (there are only 84 shots in the entire film). This approach mirrors Tsarlo’s calm, nonreactive state prior to his corruption, and also gives Tseden a chance to show off his considerable skill with shot composition.
Shooting in black and white gives the story a timeless quality, while Tseden’s willingness to let characters walk in and out of the shots suggests we are observing life rather than watching a fictional film. Tseden also makes excellent use of mirror shots in the film’s climactic scene, using narrow mirrors in opposite sides of the frame to suggest the relationship between the two main characters as well as Thorlo’s fragmenting identity. The sound design by Derek Tserang also adds much to the film, contrasting the noise of the city with the isolation of the countryside.
Tharlo is distributed on DVD by Icarus Films, in a transfer that does justice to its visual and aural beauty. Extras include an illustrated, fold-out slipcase, a booklet containing the story from which the screenplay was adapted, the video of a 2016 question and answer session with the director at the Museum of Modern Art (39 min.), and a music video directed by Pema Tseden and sung by Dekyi Tserang (3 min.).