Film Review: River • Part 1

     2015. Gtsang poགཙང་པོ། [River]. Drama Films. 93.50 minutes. English subtitles. 


     Zon thar gyal (ཟོན་ཐར་རྒྱལ། director and screenplay); Wang Meng (王猛 cinematographer); Stag rtse don 'grub (སྟག་རྩེ་དོན་འགྲུབ། artistic director); Gdugsdkartshe ring (གདུགས་དཀར་ཚེ་རིང་། sound & music); Sangs rgyas (སངས་རྒྱས)  and Alexandra Sun (producers); Pad ma tshebrtan (པད་མ་ཚེ་བརྟན།) and Du Qingchun (杜庆春 co-producers); Kong Jinglei (孔劲蕾 editor); and Rig 'dzin sgrol ma (རིག་འཛིན་སྒྲོལ་མ། Dbyangs can lha mo (དབྱངས་ཅན་ལྷ་མོ།) and Gu ru tshe brtan (གུ་རུ་ཚེ་བརྟན། performers). 

    Zon thar gyal(b. 1974) is an A mdo Tibetan artist, cinematographer, artistic director, screenwriter, director, and filmmaker.He grew up in a herding area in 'Ba' rdzong (Tongde) County, Mtsholho (Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Mtsho sngon (Qinghai) Province, China. Zon thar gyal trained in the production of thang ga, a traditional form of Tibetan religious art. His major was Fine Arts while a student at Mtsho sngon Normal University. He later studied at Beijing Film Academy en route to becoming a prominent member of the first generation of Tibetan filmmakers. 

    From 1994-2002 he was an artist. Works from this period include Life Series and Red Series. In 2002, he began to make films such as Grassland (2004) and Flares Wafting in 1983 (2008). He also worked with Pad ma tshe brtan as a cinematographer and artistic director on The Silent Holy Stones  (2005), The Search (2007), and Old Dog (2011). Zon thar gyal"became a member of the APSA [Asia Pacific Screen Awards] Academy when he was nominated for Achievement in Cinematography in 2011 for his work on Old Dog." 

    His directorial debut, The Sun Beaten Path (2011), premiered at Locarno and won numerous awards including the Vancouver International Film Festival's prestigious Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema and The 35th Hong Kong International Film festivals 2011-Special Mention Winner. 

    River, the focus of this review, made its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival on 11 February 2015 and was shown at the 18th Shanghai International Film Festival on 28 May 2015. On 10 December 2015 in Lhasa, Zon thar gyal showed River with his first film, The Sun Beaten Path. "The film has won more than 13 awards domestically and overseas since its completion."  As of March 2016, River was unavailable online and DVDs were unavailable for purchase. River is the second film directed and written by Zon thar gyal. It features non-professional Tibetan performers and all the dialogues are in A mdo Tibetan. It was shot in Mtsho lho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture over a three-year period and features all the four seasons.

   Zon thar gyal says that inspiration for River came with the arrival of his second child (a son), which made his daughter very uncomfortable. "At first I just wanted to make a simple movie for children as a gift for my daughter,"  he said during an interview in Lhasa. Later, however, the film became more elaborate with the addition of a grandfather, creating a story that embraces three generations. 


    The main characters are the grandfather known as Thub bstan chos 'phel (monk's name) and Gsar brje skyabs(layman's name), played by Mkhas grub. Thub bstan chos 'phel was a monk until the Culture Revolution (1966-1976), became a layman, married, had a son, and then later left his family and became a meditator, living in a room fashioned out of a rocky mountainside in a remote location. Thub bstan chos 'phel is locally considered a holy, great meditator. When he falls ill, every family's representative visits, except for Gu ru. 

    I want to pause and comment on the name Gsar brje skyabs because it is such a clever choice. Not only does it reflect revolutionary names (I have a cousin (b. 1973), for example, named Gsar brje 'Revolution') of the Culture Revolution era, it is also packed with irony as used here. It translates as 'Protected by the Revolution'.  In fact, Thub bstan chos 'phel's life, like the lives of millions of others in China, was drastically altered by the Culture Revolution in ways they did not want and it is highly unlikely he felt that the Revolution protected him from anything.

The son, Gu ru (played by Gu ru tshe brtan), is in his thirties and hates his father because he refused Gu ru's dying mother's last wish, which was to see her husband.Gu ru's wife, Rig sgrol (played by singer Rig 'dzin sgrol ma), is about the same age as Gu ru. Typically, she works hard, is constantly busy with housework, and shows flashes of fierce independence. 

Dbyings can lha mo (real name), the youngest performer, is in the process of being weaned. Gu ru and Rig sgrol's only child, she is distraught when she learns that her mother is pregnant, believing that this is why she is being weaned. Dbyings can lha mo's constant playmate, Rgya khra 'Brown Variegated Lamb', is an orphan. She also has a yellow-brown teddy bear that her father buys for her. The teddy bear features prominently in the narrative when Rig sgrol tells Dbyangs can lha mo that no matter what she plants this year, there will be many of it the next year. Naïvely, she then plants the teddy bear in her family's field in the hope of growing more teddy bears by the next Spring.(To be continued)

Originally published in Asian Highlands Perspectives


Punwang Tsang (Pun tsogWang gyal) was born in a Tibetan nomadic family in Amdo. He went to local boarding schools. In August 2016, Punwang Tsang participated an international leadership workshop in San Francisco sponsored by VIA (Volunteers in Asia). He graduated from Xi'an Translation University in 2017. Meanwhile, hehas published an article and a film review of Riverin AHP (Asian Highlands Perspectives), an international journal, as an independent scholar.