Gunshots are heard from afar. Someone falls to the snow-covered ground. Others rush to him, their apprehensive gazes surveying the vast landscape for the shooter. Terror sets in. And the last thing we see on screen are shadows reflected on a pair of glasses a little girl wears. Such is a fitting opening to “The Sweet Requiem”, which is inspired by the 2006 incident near the Tibet-Nepal border that left one dead and others injured.
The scene cuts to black.
The next scene is one that stands in stark contrast with the former. The monotonous whiteness that blankets Tibetan mountains earlier on is replaced by chiseled blocks of bright, exuberant colors characteristic of a tropical country – India. There Dolkar, a Tibetan woman in her mid-20s, is living the typical life of a refugee: hanging out with her own kind of people, working a low-paid job in a beauty salon, and taking modern dance lessons at night. The bustling life rhythm in Delhi masks a tragedy that Dolkar seeks to put behind: her journey from Tibet to India years ago, which ends in a way that she prefers not to talk about.
But her tranquil life is soon disrupted after a chance encounter with Gompo – a former acquaintance, now a political activist championing for Tibetans’ freedom who hardly recognizes Dolkar. From there on, the present narrative is punctuated with glimpses into the past, capturing main events in the journey that haunts Dolkar until this day. As Dolkar is tormented by invoked memories of the incident, Gompo – in parallel – pensively broods over all the troubles in his life. Eventually, events force them to confront each other about an episode in life that once bound them together.
Drawing inspiration from China’s ignoble oppression of Tibetans, directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam should be praised for their political consciousness and audacity. The movie throws light on lives of Tibetans in exile and their ordeals as stateless, non-protected people in India where Tibetans and refugees from other Asians countries seek shelter in. In a sense, the film creates a cultural evidence essential to the ongoing fight of Tibetans to regain their lost freedom and security back home.
In that sense, the film’s cast, in their credible portrayals of bereaved, oppressed Tibetans, have successfully won sympathy and support for real-life Tibetans who are fighting for their religious and overall freedom. In fact, Tenzin Dolker (playing Dolkar) and Jampa Kalsang (playing Gompo) hardly need to get into character. They are the characters. The tears they shed, their occasional frowns, the gestures they naturally give off all point to nuanced, convincing depictions of real-life Tibetan refugees. It even feels like all the actors and actresses are simply recounting their own stories, and separate threads from their personal lives are delicately woven into a narrative’s fabrics that surely resonates with many viewers, Tibetans or not.
Unfortunately, despite its laudable acting, interesting subject matter, and exuberant visuals, the movie suffers from its lack of refinement and plodding pace. The directors’ efforts to highlight the brutality Tibetans have to endure are hindered by a repetitive, scattered storyline that culminates in a resolution that is far from perfect. While their past encounter is given ample screen time, the same dynamics in Dolkar’s and Gompo’s present relationship are not properly elaborated on. Most notably, Dolkar’s conflicted emotions towards Gompo – a man who both helped and abandoned her and other Tibetans – are not as well articulated as they should be. So is Gompo’s final resolve to be a good, dignified person to redeem himself. A more structured, substantive plot would serve the film well.
Though blemished by narrative deficiencies, “The Sweet Requiem” is a laudable attempt by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam to raise social awareness and increase the visibility of the otherwise invisible Tibetan refugee community. That the film starts when the journey almost ends, and ends when the journey almost starts signals the continuation of Tibetans’ oppression and escape, as well as concerted efforts by concerned filmmakers to increase awareness about the matter. And so while not necessarily a great movie, “The Sweet Requiem” is definitely a memorable, socially relevant one.