With its wizard-worthy forest slopes rising to icy Himalayan heights, its fabled single traffic signal, and its high monk-to-layman ratio, Bhutan ranks as one of the world’s most fetishized intersections of tradition and technology. With his 1999 debut, The Cup, a comedic glimpse of soccer-crazed monastics, Bhutanese-Tibetan director (and high lama) Khyentse Norbu wisely made tenuous cultural exchange his central philosophical inquiry. His status as a reincarnated saint at home lent weight to his claims that film can be as sacred as a prayer flag. And in a Hollywood where Buddhism (the old kabbalah) is generally handled with Kundun gloves, his insistence on the puckishness of holy men goosed the genre.
His Travellers and Magicians is the first feature film shot entirely in Bhutan, and like The Cup, uses exclusively non-professional actors. While it doesn’t have its predecessor’s Coke-bottle-in-the-desert, NPR-ready hook, its conflicts are similar. Unlike The Cup‘s holy football fans though, protag Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) isn’t struggling with how much outside culture to let in. Lured by the pirated siren song of the West, the restless village officer shreds air guitar in his pinup-plastered bedroom and eventually blows town, strutting past his Dzongkha-speaking kin in an “I [Heart] NY” tee and scoffing irreverently at a phallic effigy used in their traditional house blessing. But when Dondup’s high-top kicks fail him and he misses his bus to Thimphu, he falls in with a chatty monk, a grizzled apple seller, and a rice paper maker and his clever daughter, who tells him, “People in the U.S. don’t even know where Bhutan is.” As the journey progresses, the director conjures comedic, at times uniquely Buddhist tensions—between loud and soft, waiting and having, damnyen and boombox, the allure of cool girls abroad and the routine surprises of home.
In interviews, Norbu has compared the editing process to meditation. While his pacing echoes that of polestars like Ozu and Makhmalbaf, his edits make striking events out of mundane motions like hands moving under running water and mouths meeting cups of butter tea. They also mimic the brevity of memory, pausing just briefly on magisterial images like fibrous storm clouds obscuring an ominous orange moon. While his travelers wind over ridges backed by stabbing peaks, the monk among them unfurls a parallel tale that splits the movie in two. This hauntingly shot confabulation follows reckless seeker Tashi, who meets with tragedy when his wild dream steed abandons him at the otherworldly home of a sinister old woodcutter and his much younger wife. The mood shifts from sunlit highway romp to gentle J-horror, with a limited palette muting the woodsy greens in favor of foreboding reds, ochres, purples. The story of Tashi’s lusty downfall is the monk’s caveat to curious Dondup—and Norbu’s literal “grass may not be greener” wink to young Bhutanese. But the sometime cosmopolite director doesn’t side with his homebody raconteur entirely. Though the road-trippy troupe of fleeting acquaintances have awakened Dondup to domestic delights, his jocular final grin as his course for Thimphu resumes still pulses with the anticipation of travel.