Movie Review: Paths of the Soul (冈仁波齐)

paths of the soul

In 1994, Rodger Kamenetz popularised the term “Jubu”, or “Jewish Buddhist”, with his best-selling book, The Jew in the Lotus. The book, which detailed a series of conversations between a number of rabbis and the Dalai Lama, confirmed what a number of Jews either already knew or suspected: many Buddhist practices dovetail quite nicely for those who are looking to express their spirituality in ways that their grandparents back in the shtetls of Eastern Europe could never have imagined possible. It could be with that in mind that I approached the film, PATHS OF THE SOUL, with a curious eye. I wanted to see the connection for myself.

PATHS OF THE SOUL is the work of mainland Chinese director Zhang Yang (張揚), whose previous films have included SHOWER (洗澡), and GETTING HOME (落葉歸根). Zhang had travelled to Tibet a number of times over the years and was struck by the locals who make the thousand-plus kilometer trek from their remote villages to central Lhasa along National Highway 318. Walking such a long distance must be hard enough but these pilgrims are doing it in both blizzard and blistering heat, at elevations above 3500 meters, and prostrating themselves (kowtowing) every few steps along the way.

The film follows an extended family of 11 souls from the village of Mangkang (nestled in the southeast corner of China’s so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, near the Yunnan and Sichuan provincial borders), who decide to make the journey for a number of reasons. Yang, the oldest member of the group, wants to go because his brother had died before ever having the chance to go himself. Yang, himself, has never even travelled beyond Mangkang. His nephew, Nyima, decides to accompany him. Rigzin wants to go to honour the memory of the two men who had recently died while building his house. Jiangcuo, the village’s butcher, also wants to go to hopefully cleanse himself of his dependence on alcohol. Tsring, who is heavily pregnant, wants to go to have her baby en route and bring the infant good karma. Gyatso, an 11-year-old girl, doesn’t have much say in whether or not she goes. Her relatives don’t want to have the burden of looking after her while her parents are on the trek. Nevertheless, she takes on her new responsibility like a mature adult. The pilgrimage is something that every Tibetan dreams of doing at some point in their lives. Gyatso is just doing a bit earlier than the rest of her friends and cousins.

Kowtowing is serious business. Dressed in a heavy, rawhide apron over their already bulky clothes (the apron runs from chest to shins), the worshippers dive headlong onto the pavement every seven or eight steps. Blocks of hardwood are strapped to their hands to protect them but even they get abraded down after a few hundred kilometers and have to be replaced. The same goes for their shoes, which can’t offer much protection let alone arch support when they only cost 30 renminbi (less than US$5) each. But the pilgrims endure, covering about 10 kilometers a day. Leading the pack are the oldest men who chant prayers while acting as traffic cones for oncoming cars and trucks. Behind them is a farm tractor that pulls a trailer filled with their tents, blankets, food and water. No one complains and there are no egos to contend with. They are solidly united and steadfast in their belief and their mission.

It’s easy to think that PATHS OF THE SOUL is a documentary, but it really falls under the relatively new genre known as “docufiction”. Yes, these are real people walking 1200 kilometers but, as the director explained in a post-screening Q&A, some scenes were reshot as many as four times in order to get the effect just right. The final act, too, he informed the audience, was staged. But don’t let that stop you from watching the film or enjoying it. There’s something that’s mesmerizing in watching this group interact with their faith, each other, and the people they meet along the way. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of their lives and how they take pleasure in every little thing.

I’ve got to say that while Judaism has some practices that even many Jews find onerous (keeping kosher, for example), it’s nothing compared to what Tibetan Buddhists do to show their faith and devotion. But I do see the connection between the two.

PATHS OF THE SOUL was screened at the 40th Hong Kong International Film Festival. The sales agent has informed me that the film will be released shortly in Japan, North America and mainland China. So far, it hasn’t been picked up by a local distributor so I don’t know if or when it will be on general release here. I’ll post something when I hear it.

Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 27:20.)

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