Pelden Dorji is the founder of Bhutan Film Association and one of the first local filmmakers in the country’s cinema, which was initiated in the 90’s. The particular film, which was restored in 2015, is one of the favorite of the Bhutanese audiences.
Norbu is a young man who lives in a mountain village with his sick father. Norbu’s mother died when he was very little and her death resulted in him considering a lama of their herd as his mother, and after her death, her son, as his brother and best friend, even naming him after him, Samten Norbu. At the time the story begins, a lama and his beautiful daughter, Choeki arrive at the area, while the Yak Lord, who is the owner of every yak in the country summons Norbu to tell him that he will soon demand a slaughter. Norbu asks the lama to make Samten a holy animal, thus excluding it from any kind of slaughter. In the process, he and Choeki become more than friends and Norbu’s life seems to be on a great path. However, the presence of a merchant from Thimpu, who insists that Choeki should go to the capital and the marriage of the Yak Lord’s daughter, while Norbu is traveling to Gasa to have his father treated, complicate things.
Dorji presents a simple story that deals with the universal themes of tradition against progress, the impact of laws on people, and man’s relationship with nature, in this case with animals. The first aspect is presented through the relationship of Norbu and Choeki, with the latter, after speaking with the merchant (who plays the role of “devil”) wishing to leave the place and Norbu not even imagining leaving his father and Samten behind. The second aspect is presented through the Yak Lord’s demands, with him and his son depicted as cruel men who act without regarding the wishes of yak owners, whatsoever. The third is presented through Norbu and Samten’s relationship, with the former treating the latter as a human being, in every sense.
While the first two elements are presented quite well, I found some issues with the third, with the relationship between a man and a yak being quite difficult to understand, since the yaks are unresponsive animals, although one could easily say that this lack of understanding is due to the differences in culture. The other two aspects, however, work nicely and induce the film with a dramatic sense that strengthens the entertainment level, in a tendency that finds its apogee during the finale.
The movie benefits the most by Leki Dorji and Yeshey Gyeltshen cinematography that presents the mountainous setting in all its glory, regarding both the feeding grounds and the various settlements, which look majestic in the barren environment they are usually set in. In that fashion, the film occasionally functions as a traveling guide to the area, with the duo highlighting its beauties. Pelden Dorji’s editing moves the story relatively fast, although at times I found it a bit hasty, while Tsheten Dorji’s music captures the essence of each scene brilliantly, with a combination of cheery and dramatic tracks.
Choekie Dorji as Samten plays the young man who is set to follow tradition quite well, in a naturalistic fashion, although he seems to fail, somewhat, during the dramatic finale, where his performance becomes hyperbolic. Sonam Choeki as Choeki is a bit better, as she presents a girl eager to experience things, although somewhat naive. The scene where she appears in a meeting in the village with modern clothes, instead of the traditional ones everyone in the area is wearing, is the highlight of her performance. The chemistry of the duo also works quite well in the film.
With “Norbu” being the first Bhutanese film I have watched, I have to admit I was not impressed, apart from the scenery that is. However, the film made me want to check more movies from the country, and in that aspect, I guess it achieves its goal.