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One of the globe’s more secluded countries, Bhutan is known for its mountains, Tibetan-style Buddhism, and strict quotas on tourists. Limiting Westerners, however, is not the same thing as limiting the influence of Western pop culture: The protagonist of writer-director Khyentse Norbu’s Travellers & Magicians is a low-level civil servant recently posted to an outlying village, where he stands out by wearing shoulder-length hair, gleaming white running shoes, and an “I ♥ New York” T-shirt. Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) hopes to express that ♥ in person, if only a letter from America would arrive. When it does, its contents aren’t disclosed, but the missive leads Dondup to believe that he has only a few days to make it to Thimphu, the Himalayan kingdom’s capital, or he’ll lose his chance to emigrate.
Having just missed the weekly bus, Dondup begins to hitchhike, carrying a boombox that blares Anglo-American power-pop. (Norbu, a Buddhist lama as well as a filmmaker, must not like the genre very much, since he quickly arranges for the batteries to fail.) As he trudges the mountain roads, Dondup gradually acquires an entourage: an old man with a load of apples to sell (Ap Dochu); a rice-paper maker (Dasho Adab Sangye) and his pretty 19-year-old daughter, Sonam (Sonam Lhamo); and a musical, storytelling monk (Sonam Kinga). During lulls in the journey, the monk begins to tell a tale. It is, of course, a fable of a restless young man who’s bored with his village and wants to visit new and glamorous places.
As a Buddhist and a Bhutanese who contributes, however modestly, to the global mass-media smorgasbord, Norbu has a natural interest in how traditional Himalayan culture reacts to the secular Western onslaught. His first feature, 1999’s The Cup, was a scruffy and incisive parable in which teenage Buddhist novices plot to watch the World Cup on satellite TV. Both Norbu’s films possess the twinkly humanity associated with the Dalai Lama, who helped purge Tibetan Buddhism of demons and ghosts—to make it, ironically enough, more suitable for Western consumption. This relatively new tradition is far from the austerity or even cruelty of recent Buddhist-rooted films from such directors as Korea’s Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring) and Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (whose Nobody Knows is due soon). Travellers & Magicians includes a passing reference to ghosts, but there’s nothing supernatural about the monsters in the monk’s fable.
Told in sepia-toned chapters inserted into the framing narrative with witty cross-cuts, the tale transpires in an enchanted past yet has obvious pertinence to Dondup’s present situation. Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji) is uninterested in his magic classes, and he dreams of more interesting climes populated by more beautiful women. His younger brother (Namgay Dorjee) covets the occult instruction allowed only to his sibling, so he infuses Tashi’s wine with a potion. After drinking it, Tashi suddenly spies a white horse. He climbs aboard and is taken for a wild ride that ends with him alone in a dense, unfamiliar forest. He’s reluctantly given shelter by an old man, Agay (Gomchen Penjore), who lives far from any neighbors because he fears someone will try to steal his beautiful young wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom, a classically exotic beauty). Inevitably, Tashi is soon infatuated with the woman—a development that appears to augur disaster.
The monk’s yarn is meant for Dondup, but his character changes less because of the story than because of one of his traveling companions: Captivated by Sonam, Dondup begins to lose his zeal to depart his homeland. Norbu leaves the modern-day tale open-ended, but it’s possible that Dondup will find everything he desires in picturesque Bhutan, where bus service is limited but the women are as striking as the towering peaks and mist-shrouded valleys that provide the film’s backdrop. And scenery is more than just scenery here: The script is simply too pat to hold much interest on its own, so Norbu relies on cinematographer Alan Kozlowski’s images to amplify the sense of wonder.
In both structure and disposition, Travellers & Magicians is keyed to its lighter contemporary narrative. One edit, for example, disrupts the intense erotic charge between Tashi and Deki with an anachronistic burst of electric guitar, summoning the viewer back to the present. Yet the legend of the two young lovers is more true to traditional Buddhist teachings than is the possible romance of Dondup and Sonam: Whereas the monk’s parable treats desire as a snare that can lead to wrongdoing and death, the contemporary narrative presents it merely as a force for civilization and continuity. Whether this moral was designed for the international art-house audience or the Dondups the director has met at home, it’s a rather Western gloss on the Buddhist opinion of passion.
When Hollywood demolitionists want to show some virility, they blow up airplanes, battleships, or Death Stars. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior doesn’t have the budget for that, but the martial-arts flick does stage the most extravagant destructive gesture it can afford: It trashes a couple dozen tuk-tuks, those three-wheel open-air taxis that rule the streets of Bangkok.
If only for its keen desire to impress, the chase sequence that wrecks all those minicabs is a highlight of director Prachya Pinkaew’s earnest but barely professional movie. Basically, Ong-Bak follows the model of Jackie Chan’s early pictures, with Thai stuntman Panom Yee-rum (aka Tony Jaa) as the impossibly agile leading man who does all his own moves—without wires or other tricks.
There is a difference, however: Though he can hop, flip, and punch, Yee-rum lacks Chan’s flair for physical comedy. He’s as humorless as Suphachai Sithiamphan’s script, which sends aspiring monk Ting (Yeerum) in pursuit of urban gangster Don, who stole the head of the local Buddha that protects Ting’s remote village. (“That Don is a bastard!” exclaims one helpful bystander.)
Ong-Bak is feted but once every 24 years; naturally, the next festival is only days away when the statue loses its head. To retrieve it, Ting heads to Bangkok, where he suffers the usual country-mouse indignities and acquires two sidekicks—one male and small-time corrupt, the other female, tough, and underused. Ting keeps ending up at a nightclub where he’s eyed maliciously by the tale’s evil mastermind—a stereotype of crippled ambition complete with voice simulator for his ruined larynx—and is drawn into repeated kickboxing bouts with hulking Westerners.
Such complications have little to do with the thin story. But then this movie is principally a demonstration reel for its star. The director even shows some of the stunts from multiple angles, as if to guarantee that everyone will be properly impressed. Actually, Yee-rum doesn’t need it: He’s Ong-Bak’s one special effect, and there’s nothing in this low-rent escapade that can hope to compete with him.CP