"Travellers & Magicians" is a lovely and quiet Buddhist-inspired saga from Bhutan about the folly of passion, and attachment to outcomes and worldly goods. It is written and directed by a Buddhist monk, Khyentse Norbu, from Bhutan. It is the first feature film ever made in this small country nestled in the Himalayas between India and China. Norbuís first film, "The Cup" in 1999 won critical international acclaim at festivals and was distributed in 40 countries. Norbu had never even seen a film until he was a 19 year-old monk on his way home from college in India and caught a glimpse of a Bollywood epic at a train station. Later Norbu studied in London where he discovered movie houses in his free time and became passionate about film.
Just like in Norbuís first film, no professional actors were used in "Travellers & Magicians". The cast members include a chief financial professional, a monk trained in pure mathematics, a farmer, and a school principal. Tshewang Dendup, who plays Dondup, the main character, is a producer and reporter for the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS). Norbu spotted Dendup among 25,000 people when Dendup was filming a religious ceremony for the press. Dendup was delighted when Norbu summoned him to audition, and he readily agreed.
The country of Bhutan is insular because of the mountains; in the 1960ís the country didnít even have a financial currency, electricity or a national language. The King chose Dzongkha, one of the dozen dialects, but it is an oral language and it wasnít until the making of "Travellers & Magicians" that a dictionary for the language was created. Most of the actors speak other dialects so they had to be coached to learn Dzongkha.
In the story Dondup is a nervous and impatient chain-smoking university graduate working as a government officer. His village bores him because it has no movies or restaurants and especially no cool girls. He doesnít fit in with the others and even dresses differently and has a Western hair cut. He wants to escape his mundane existence and travel to the "land of his dreams" Ė America, where the grass is greener, and where he would rather pick apples than work as a government officer in his village. He leaves to hitch rides to Thdom-pooh-ya, the capital, to catch a bus. As Dondup leaves town, a group of men is hoisting a huge wooden phallus on a roof for a housewarming party. He is invited to attend but he declines.
As his journey ensues he meets other travelers, an apple-seller, a Buddhist monk, a paper-maker and his captivating daughter, Sonam Ė who all end up getting under his skin and changing the way he sees the world. The monk is a wise and clever raconteur who tells a story within this story of passion-gone-bad which helps bring clarity to Dondup. Dondupís metamorphosis is marked by his increased serenity and quitting smoking. The story and Dondupís character arch are predictable, but endearing and engaging.
The beginning of the film seems a little awkward. It may be the director's intention to make the audience feel a restless and unsettled like Dondup does. But with a little patience, "Travellers & Magicians" becomes delightful and engaging. The director finds its tenor and the film begins to reflect Eastern sensibilities more comfortably. It is a rare treat to get a glimpse of Bhutan and its cultural uniqueness. The story is intriguing, the acting is stunning and the beauty and tranquillity of Bhutan are breathtaking. This film should be seen on the big screen for the cinematography by Alan Kozlowski.
© 2005 - Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D - Air Date: 1/5/05
Travellers and Magicians
Director: Khyentse Norbu/108 minutes/Countries: Bhutan and Australia/In Dzongkha with English subtitles