For 2,000 kilometers, the Tibetan pilgrims of Zhang Yang’s extraordinary travelogue Paths of the Soul clap, drop facedown to the road or gravel or mud, and then lift themselves up to walk a few steps and do it all again. They wear wooden blocks on their hands that they slap together three times before kowtowing; the pilgrims tend to throw themselves forward, the boards scraping against the roadway, a satisfying echo of the claps. They wear aprons made of animal skins but no protection over their knees or faces. The roads, mostly paved, wind up and down the mountains toward Lhasa, Tibet’s capital and the home of Buddhist religious sites. A tractor hauling a trailer and their supplies rumbles slowly behind the pilgrims, and trucks blast past with little warning, terrible reminders of the world outside these peaks. Their devotional trek circumnavigates the top of the world at an elevation of over 11,000 feet. The tufting mist along their route in the mornings, as the pilgrims break down their cliffside tent, would be clouds to anyone a switchback or two below them.
That’s the heart of Zhang’s film: vista, kowtow, scrape, scrape, vista. Sometimes the pilgrims pause to stack some rocks. Sometimes they meet other bowing travelers, like the chipper fellow who has been doing this for seven months while his wife hauls their cart and their donkey, a member of the family, trudges along bearing no burden. The film is restful and exhausting, inviting us into contemplation: of Tibet’s epic-scale natural beauty, which has rarely been filmed with such you-are-there patience and intimacy, each new horizon these pilgrims reach a reward for their perseverance — and yours. Of those pilgrims’ unwavering dedication and belief, even in the face of disasters — avalanches, a tractor accident — but also the boon of childbirth, which only briefly delays a penitent mother. And of the welcome fact that the movie exists at all. Zhang shot for more than a year, a feat in and of itself, but he also managed to secure approval from the Chinese government to make and distribute this film celebrating Tibetan spirituality.
His pilgrims are playing themselves, sometimes taking a moment to tell each other the reasons they have taken to the road, seeking absolution. Their journey here is lightly fictionalized, though the journey itself is real.
They dive and climb, up mountain after mountain, in search of wisdom, for thousands of kilometers. Meanwhile, the dipshit sitting next to me in the movie house couldn’t go two hours without checking his phone six times.
Paths of the Soul
Directed by Zhang Yang
Now playing, MoMA