A surprising testament, perhaps, to China’s slightly reduced repression of Tibetan culture, Wanma-caidan’s first narrative feature “The Silent Holy Stones” is not only set in a Buddhist monastery there, it even offers a parable of traditional spirituality endangered by empty economic-boom materialism. Charming and simple on the surface, pic can be read as a direct critique or simply as a quirky anecdote of remote mountain-region life. Either way, it’s a polished and enjoyable tale that could cross over from fest dates into modest offshore commercial exposure.
A novice of about 10, the boy called Little Lama (Luosang-danpei) seems happy enough to follow the instructions of his master Old Lama (Quesai). But a chore-shirking, mischievous side glimmers — especially when he manipulates the even younger Little Living Buddha (Quhuancang Buddha) into letting him watch the latter’s television.
Little Lama is excited to be visiting his family for 48 hours starting New Year’s Day. His father arrives to take him home, crossing the tundra on horseback. But after arriving, the boy can barely pay attention to anything — his parents, siblings, the villagers who ask him to perform religious functions as their last remaining monastic acolyte — anything, that is, except for the clan’s new TV, VCR and set of videodiscs dramatizing classic mythological epic “Journey to the West.”
Pic’s comic high point arrives as Little Lama repeatedly interrupts a live performance of traditional Tibetan play “Prince Drime Kunldan” in the village square, finagling to watch more fantasy-action video. (A young-adult drunk also disrupts the occasion, offering more evidence of what local elders see as the younger generation’s plummeting values.)
By pic’s end, the boy no longer seems very fit for the religious life. Shot at far-flung locations including the impressive hillside Guwa Monastery, “Stones” uses the dramatically stark landscape and stationary camera setups (helmer cites Kiarostami as an influence) to good effect, but its overall, the film is less ascetic than prior films dealing with Buddhist monastic life. There’s considerable humor, some caustic, and the pace is leisurely but not challengingly slow. Erosion of traditional life is always an undercurrent, as when locals lament the passing of area’s last sacred-stone engraver (hence the pic’s title).
Perfs, mostly by non-pros, are delightful. Local everyday and ceremonial garb provide splashes of vivid color in the handsome production, while the soundtrack’s traditional instrumentation is occasionally disrupted by pop-mariket sounds (“that grating music,” one fleeing elder calls it) to pointed effect. Tech package is fine.