A Reborn Lama Kick-starts His Movie Career


Khyentse Norbu, director of The Cup, a sweet-natured, old-fashioned comedy about soccer-loving monks, has a pedigree his PR-hungry Western counterparts would kill for: Recognized at age seven as the reincarnation of a 19th-century Buddhist lama, he now oversees, after years of rigorous training, a Tibetan monastery-in-exile in Bhutan and undergoes months-long solitary jungle retreats (an exercise that might work wonders as, say, a Sundance entry requirement). To his credit, the 38-year-old Norbu seems reluctant to perpetuate the cute “Monk Directs Film” angle that essentially presold The Cup (Fine Line won last year’s Cannes bidding war). For starters, Norbu points out that he’s not strictly a monk, but a “Buddhist philosopher” who has undertaken certain vows, and that the nominally secular pursuits of filmmaking and soccer don’t pose too glaring a contradiction for a man of faith. “In the West, people tend to think of Buddhism as a religion, with restrictions. For me, it’s a science, like physics or philosophy. You can be a scientist who plays football and makes films.”

Norbu’s first encounter with the movies came at age 19. “It was one of those bizarre Indian films with dancing,” he says. More substantial epiphanies followed, when he was attending the University of London: “Instead of studying comparative religion, I was discovering Tarkovsky and Ozu.” In 1992, Norbu was hired as a consultant on Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, and it was that film’s British producer, Jeremy Thomas, who raised funds for The Cup, which Norbu says was based entirely on actual events. “In fact, I had to omit some things because if there’s too much truth, people don’t believe it.” The Cup doesn’t belabor its sport-as-religion aspect and Norbu has a straightforward explanation for soccer’s popularity among the young monks in his charge. “I think it has to do with its simplicity. Everything that is addictive has to do with simplicity.” While the press kit for The Cup trumpets the ancient divination system that influenced production decisions (about film stock, shooting days, et cetera), Norbu for one is keen to demystify the process. “It was just the easiest way—and more about Tibetan cultural hang-ups than Buddhism.”

Refreshingly candid and, it would seem, something of a budding industry player, Norbu admits without hesitation, “I made this film for Western audiences. It was a compromise. A Bhutanese has a different way of looking. But every time I write a story as a Bhutanese, there’s a problem: Where will I get the finance?” Still, Norbu’s filmic philosophy does sound suitably Buddhist: “to go as close as possible to reality.” He refers to the films of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf as “ultimate cinema.” He praises Scorsese’s Kundun as “very authentic, the best film so far related to Buddhism” and cites as his favorite recent movies Natural Born Killers (“it portrays a reality about the human mind and America”) and, even more surprising, Catherine Breillat’s darkly explicit portrait of female sexuality, Romance (“it tells me something that I don’t know”). Norbu says that he’ll follow his current promotional activities with a solitary retreat in India. “No hot showers, no toilets. I’ll need it. Otherwise you tend to forget you’re living. Then I’ll make another film.”