Following the success of his first movie “The Cup”, both at the box office and in the festival circuit, Bhutanese director and Buddhist Lama Khyentse Norbu pens and directs “Travellers and Magicians” in 2003 and this movie too is a collaboration with his regular partner and executive producer Jeremy Thomas. “Travellers and Magicians” is part of the special focus on Bhutanese cinema at Five Flavours Film Festival in Warsaw.
A young Bhutanese government officer, Dondup (Tsewang Dandup) has just been assigned to work in a small village. Despite being surrounded by beautiful nature and peaceful jolly people, his mind is set on the American Dream. In his room, like a grumpy teenager, he listens to rock music (he is a mean air-guitarist) and exercises under the blank gazes of his flatmate and the many poster girls on the walls. He is impatiently waiting for an important letter from the capital city that could help him to fulfill his dream and when it finally arrives, he packs in a frenzy his American T-shirts, grabs his battery-operated Boombox Radio and leaves, flying in his Nike trainers.
Travelling is not easy in Bhutan and once Dondup miss the bus due to the irritating slowness of all the villagers, hitch-hiking looks like the only alternative left. Being a festival weekend, other travelers are on the road looking for lifts and after few attempts to avoid them Dondup ends up joining them, an old apple seller and a monk with his musical instrument first and a rice-paper maker with his beautiful daughter later. Chain-smoker Dondup grows more and more impatient as the trip proceeds very slowly, he fiddles with his long hair and pretends not to listen to the annoying monk and his mottoes, but when the religious learns Dondup’s dream is to leave Bhutan and go to the US, he insists to narrate the tale of a restless young man called Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), chasing his own dreamland. “Once upon a time in a faraway land and time ….”
Like its title, “Travellers and Magicians” is split into two very distinct sections, the slow trip to Thimphu and the monk’s parable. As risky as it could be, this matryoshka structure of a dream, inside a fable inside a story is executed with measure and gives the narration a pleasant episodic rhythm. The format the director has adopted is the familiar and crowd-pleasing travelogue but he has enriched it with humor and a dark parallel journey into a metaphoric dreamland that predictably is bound to implode.
The movie centers on the typical predicament (I wouldn’t call it a cliché) of the Buddhist faith and critique of Western restlessness and desire for all things out of reach and it does so in a non-judgmental way. We are left to meditate on the journey without knowing if it will reach its destination or if Dondup will ever change his mind.
Tsewang Dandup, one of Norbu’s regular collaborators, is sweet and funny as the impatient and naïve Dondup and the nagging monk provides his perfect comedic counterpart. Many of the villagers and travelers are non-professional and they are real gems.
There are many foreign names within the tech credits and North American cinematographer Alan Kozlowsky stands out with his prestigious CV. His work on “Traveller and Magicians” is top class, the two separate plot-lines are differentiated by two opposite palettes and styles, the real Himalayan world is bright and realistically glorious, while the monk’s parable is imbued of over-saturated Sienna shades and turns into a creepy and malign cold green as it goes deep in the pine tree forest, creating a stunning gothic ambiance.
With his whimsical tone and understated moral intents “Travellers and Magicians” is entertaining, nourishing and a joy to watch.