“Once Upon a Time in Tibet” presents China’s most contentious territory as host to a glorious, picturesque WWII-era love story that grows beyond its occasionally wobbly thesping to engage the heart. English-speaking thesp Joshua Hannum is outshone here by his Tibetan co-stars, but the pic’s real star is the stunning lensing of ace d.p. Mark Lee Ping-bing. Helmer Dai Wei’s epic romancer transcends and sidesteps potential controversy with an apolitical stance that nevertheless may hinder rather than help international distribution, as the production’s adherence to Chinese guidelines remains transparent. Regardless, some fests will answer the pic’s call.
One of many U.S. Air Force pilots sent to fly over the Himalayas to deliver aid to China from India, Robert Smith (Hannum) is on an ill-fated plane that doesn’t make it all the way across; post-crash, the snow-blinded aviator stumbles upon a Tibetan campsite. Smith is adopted by Yong Cuo (Song Jia), a woman shunned by the tribe for being a witch, who nurtures the delirious “red-haired devil” until he regains his sight.
Story progresses gently and, despite Hannum’s stilted line readings, he and Song create an emotional bond that sustains the narrative. But fierce warriors from another tribe are headed their way, led by Jian (U.S.-born, Taiwan- and Canada-raised thesp Peter Ho), in search of a “red-haired devil” who killed one of their clan’s womenfolk. Script briefly acknowledges China’s sovereignty over Tibet by including a sole communist soldier whom Jian’s people regard as an authority figure, though his dramatic function is minimal.
Thesping is of variable quality. Ho exudes a power onscreen that energizes the narrative, even if the viewer’s sympathy is tilted toward the loving couple. Hannum’s stiffness betrays his extensive career as a model rather than as an actor. Chinese distaff thesp Song Jia (“Red Cliff,” “Bruce Lee, My Brother”) convinces as the Tibetan woman who falls for Hannum’s lost aviator.
Though budgetary limitations are evident in the early plane sequences, the script by Zaxi Dawa and Qing Mei contains a clear blueprint for a quality picture. Producer-director Dai Wei’s helming is functional, but her project gets a huge boost from Lee’s photography; while it’s a cliche to mistake beautiful scenery for good cinematography, Lee’s eye for color and the astounding vistas of what is known as Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture are a match made in lensing heaven. Many scenes are bathed in a golden-hour glow; equally rich are the blues and greens of snow-capped mountains and expansive lakes that resemble high-altitude oceans.
Liu Tong’s score is a rousing mix of Tibetan howls blended with Western-style movie melodrama. All other tech credits are solid, despite filming in arduous conditions.