A carload of filmmakers hoping to shoot a traditional play scour the Tibetan plains for performers.

A carload of filmmakers hoping to shoot a traditional play scour the Tibetan plains for performers in “The Search,” a film rightly described as “challenging”: Helmer Pema Tseden (aka Wan Ma Cai Dan) proves he can muster extreme discipline of form, but without the ability to convey profound ideas, his distancing lensing and inert pacing play like cynical challenges to the audience. Fest programmers will be eager to promote a rare Tibet-set Chinese film made above the radar (the pic won the special jury prize at Shanghai), but don’t expect viewers to embrace the journey.

A director and his colleagues drive around the remote Himalayan landscape in an SUV, looking to cast a film version of the opera “Drime Kunden.” Once performed every year, opera is dying out, though they find just the right woman for the female role. However, she refuses to take off the scarf covering her face — she remains hidden throughout the pic — and accepts the role only if they can find her ex-b.f., now a teacher in the city and purportedly the best Drime Kunden around.

The climactic scene of the two together is shot approximately a football field away from the characters, who are barely seen, let alone heard. It’s uncertain what this brings to the picture, apart from frustration; everyone is kept at a distance except when in the SUV, in which case Tseden shoots them through a window or mirror, or simply settles on the backs of their heads. This is the sort of film in which the camera pans and stops on a blank wall while people continue talking offscreen; rather than helping the audience to concentrate on the words (banal as they are), it forces the mind to wander, especially during the recurrent shaggy-dog story told by the boss.

While it’s clear Tseden wants to draw attention to Tibet’s cultural attrition, he refuses to express any point of view; if this is meant as a sly subversion of Chinese censorship, the trick falls completely flat. Long-distance lensing does not make the heart grow fonder, while the textural limitations of the static digital format are constantly revealed.

The press materials declined to pair the nonpro actors with their roles.

The Search

China

Production

A Himalaya Audio & Visual Culture Communication production. (International sales: L'Est Films Group, Beijing.) Produced by Sangye Gyamtso, Pema Tseden. Directed, written by Pema Tseden.

Crew

Camera (color, DigiBeta), Sonthar Gyal; editors, Chen Hai Ling, Benjamin Illos, Zhou Xing; production designer, Gyal; sound, Dukar Tserang. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 11, 2009. (Also in Shanghai Film Festival -- competing; Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Manla Kyab, Tsondrey, Lumo Tso, Dobe Dorje, Drolma Gyab. (Amdo Tibetan dialogue)

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