Buddhist leader helms first Bhutanese entry

Norbu depicts young monk's World Cup obsession

Spiritual leader is a job title not found on the typical Hollywood director’s resume. It is, however, the day job for the helmer of “The Cup,” the first film submitted for Oscar consideration from the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. And despite rinpocheKhyentse Norbu’s saintly lineage, what the Buddhist lama really wanted to do was direct.

“Phorpa” (The Cup) is Norbu’s story of a young Buddhist monk’s obsession with watching the World Cup soccer finals on TV.

Shot on location in Bhutan at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in exile, “The Cup” has drawn the attention of international festivalgoers from Cannes’ Directors Fortnight to Toronto with its “magic, humanism and charm,” says Mark Ordesky, president of Fine Line Features, the film’s U.S. distributor.

The $300,000 production budget was financed by Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures. Even though the film’s dialogue is in the Tibetan language, “The Cup” has sold worldwide and will have its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

While Norbu had a traditional monastic education befitting his venerated ancestry, his first exposure to the film business came as technical adviser on Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha.”

“The Cup’s” acceptance has been “something unexpected,” says Norbu, who was touring Taiwan giving philosophy lectures. And despite a cloistered life, he seems well versed in the realities of film distribution.

“Most independent filmmakers of non-English films almost don’t have any chance, they must wait for luck. It is really, really difficult to get attention for smaller films,” he says.

The rinpoche believes that the film’s novelty has helped garner attention, and downplays the film’s spiritual message, noting, “The monastery was a good juxtaposition. It was not my intention to raise awareness but I will take it as a bonus.”

Logistics of the Himalayan foothills’ shoot were complex. The Super 16mm film stock and cameras had to be imported, dailies became weeklies because processing had to be done in Australia, and a consistent power supply was problematic. The cast was the actual monks of the Chokling Monastery, “doing what they usually do,” says the director, who allowed them freedom of movement and in what to say. His only regret: some of the film’s humor was lost in the English subtitles.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences rules require that the film be released in its own territory, supported by print and TV advertising. Luckily, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service debuted TV in the kingdom just in time in June 1999; ads were placed in the weekly national newspaper.

According to “Cup” producer Malcolm Watson, there are only two cinemas in the entire country. “The moviegoing experience in Bhutan consists of people watching their VCRs. Cinemagoing is not very comfortable. Although people did come out to see the movie, most would rather wait to see it on video,” he explains.

Watson, who works for the rinpoche raising funds for his various charitable and educational organizations, characterizes the film’s success as “totally remarkable and nothing short of amazing. We’re totally surprised, we thought we’d be back to normal routines by now.”

Benefit preems are scheduled for Jan. 20 in Los Angeles for the Tibet Fund and Jan. 27 in New York, aiding the Asia Society. The film opens Jan. 28 in New York and Los Angeles.

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