Review: Docs at Reel Asian

By Grace Wang, 2011 Reel Asian Features Programming Committee

Directors Lynn True, Nelson Walker | Tibet/USA 2010 | Tibetan w/English subtitles | Canadian Premiere | TRAILER

For four thousand years, the nomads of the Kham region of eastern Tibet have wandered its velvet grasslands and rolling hills, moving with the seasons and and living off their livestock and the land. In recent years, an unprecedented number have settled into urban life. This is their story.

Shot in the summer of 2007 in the nomad community of Dzachukha, Summer Pasture lulls with the serenity of a life high above modern troubles that plague majority of the planet’s population – literally. Set at 15,000 feet elevation, summer pasture contains no cell phones, hydro bills, traffic jams, or feckless wireless connections. There is a different kind of hardship: waking up before dawn to collect yak dung and spreading them by hand to dry for fuel; manually churning and making every scrap of food and household item;  herding 20 animals who hold the key to the your family’s survival across a vast land every single day – such is the life of Locho, Yama and their yet-to-be-named baby girl, descendents of a long line of Tibetan nomads.

With patience and freedom, filmmakers Lynn True, Nelson Walker and their Tibetan co-director Tsering Perlo captured a culture in transition. They sit in the tent with the family, stand beside them in the fields, and watch as they dote on their daughter, who blinks with curious eyes and boasts a head of strong-willed hair that stand straight up. Locho and Yama are hard-working people – they have to be. They are also very human people – they have to be. The camera captures them in good times and bad, and follows their attempts to come to terms with the change of times. Will their children grow up to be nomads as they have? Will they be able to resist the call of cities? How long can they roam the land and what will happen to both the land and the nomads when tradition can no longer fill desires of the heart? These are questions that can only be answered in time.

The strength of Summer Pasture lies in its practical, if unromantic portrait of a primitive existence that is rapidly disappearing. The nomadic life is not easy, as Locho emphasizes; Nor is it fair, as Yama smilingly complains. But like everyone else, Locho and Yama make the best of what they have, and there is something beautiful and pure in their resilience. Simple pleasures are not lost. The harshness of the land and sky are endured with universal desires: love for one’s family, hope for one’s children, and sacrifice for all of the above. Illiterate and strong-willed, these are happy people. As Locho explains near the end of the film:

“No need to become rich like a king. As they say: it takes three years to become rich and it takes only three nights to become poor. But to work as a nomad is 100% sure. The livestock is our whole life’s savings.”

There is something to be said about that.

Summer Pasture will be screening on Wednesday, November 9, 6:45 PM at Innis Town Hall.

Director Xu Tong | China 2010 | Mandarin w/English subtitles | Toronto Premiere | TRAILER

What is fortune but the timely collisions of people? In Fortune Teller, the latest film from controversial Chinese documentarian Xu Tong, these people include a lonely madam, a loyal wife, a cheating husband, amongst others. Fortune has escaped their lives, and they seek those who claim to provide rectification in mystical ways.

One such person is Li Baicheng, a charismatic fortune teller with bright eyes and deft survival instincts. Shuffling on crutches in a village near BeiJing, he doles out predictions and advice to hard-knocked clients of prostitutes and shadowy figures. His job, like theirs, is commonplace but technically illegal in China.

Living with Li is his deaf and mentally handicapped wife Pearl, who he rescued from her family’s mistreatment for selfish reasons but cares for with impatient tenderness. Winter brings a police crackdown on both fortune tellers and prostitutes, forcing Li and Pearl into temporary exile, during which they visit their hometowns and relive past demons.

In Fortune Teller, Xu Tong continues his work documenting China’s underclass that has gone largely unnoticed during the country’s boom years. Xu spent a year filming nearly every detail of Li’s daily existence and the ancient spiritual practices he administers. The result is a candid and deeply revelatory look at individuals living on the fringes of contemporary Chinese society. Beneath skyscrapers and high-speed trains, their existences remain invisible to the world at large. Still they hold on, surviving regular beat-downs and predictable injustices.

Punctuated with chapter headings reminiscent of Qing Dynasty popular fiction, the film takes on a sheen of melodrama that so readily imitates real life. Li and his clients are confessional in their monologues to the camera, as if they have never been listened to so intently before. Their lives open up with revelations of hardships, desires, and inescapable reality. Xu’s camera looks on with even gaze, with the feel of a long-lost friend rather than unwanted voyeur.

The fortunes sought and told here are not terribly exciting or outrageous. However, irony lies in the fact that for Li and other fortune tellers, the very fate they eagerly prescribe upon others remain, for themselves, so precisely senseless and out of reach.

Fortune Teller will be screening at Reel Asian on Thursday, November 10, 8:45 PM at Innis Town Hall.

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