On his way back from a pilgrimage to Lhasa, a grieving and guilt-ridden Tibetan-speaking youth falls in with a wise old man in “The Sun Beaten Path,” the helming debut of lenser-turned-director Sonthar Gyal. Handsomely photographed tale of this long walk home is predictably filled with mesmerizingly barren landscapes, long silent stretches and short moments of grace, though whether this all adds up to a work that’s profound or just something slow but pretty will depend on auds’ willingness to enlarge the microscopic morsels of narrative and character development offered. Given the rarity of Tibetan-language pics, forecast on the fest circuit looks sunny.
After an unexplained and apparently unrelated dreamlike opening scene, pic proper unspools on two timelines. The explanatory central event that separates the two is a motorcycle accident shown about 30 minutes in, and only then does it become clear that the unkempt, stone-faced loner seen walking home from Lhasa, Nima (Yeshe Lhadruk), is indeed the same person as the clean-shaven and expressive youngster who was involved in the accident that killed his mother (Lhakyed Ma).
Majority of the film simply observes Nima, racked by guilt and grief, as he walks on or close to the asphalted road that winds through the barren Gobi desert that will take him home. It emerges that he prostrated all the way to the capital, but clearly, the young man still feels he hasn’t quite paid enough for what he has done. Preferring to be left alone, Nima refuses every offer of a ride by passing drivers.
Not taking no for an answer is an old, leather-faced man (Lo Kyi), who, for reasons not entirely clear, takes it upon himself to accompany the lost youth. Some auds might praise the pic for not underlining its obvious (and often road-related) metaphors beyond the boy’s explanation that the “bus travels too fast and I don’t know where I’m going.” But Gyal doesn’t provide auds with much else either, making the pic one that either locks viewers out or asks them to attribute a lot of meaning to what amounts to very little in terms of narrative progression or character insight, especially since the outcome of the film can’t exactly be called a surprise.
Instances of humor, mainly involving the codger’s cell phone, are few and far between, and his sketchy backstory and propensity for dispensing wisdom and stories do little to move him away from the old-wise-man cliche. Young Lhadruk, a herdsman who debuts here as an actor, has a striking countenance but is given little to work with. (For the record, the Chinese versions of the leads’ names are often transcribed as Yixi Lanzhou and Luo Houjie for the young and old man respectively.)
As can be expected from the directorial debut of the cinematographer of “The Flying Kite,” “The Search” and “Old Dog” (the latter also with Kyi), pic often looks breathtaking. Gyal’s d.p. Wang Meng, shooting on the Red camera, mixes static setups and effective tracking shots that follow the wandering leads. Meng offers crisp images of the inhospitable, windswept mountain plateaus that may be sun-beaten but are captured here in cold and dry yellows and grays (except in an unconvincingly staged scene of a sudden downpour). The evocative sound design and few instances of music, both by Dukar Tserang, further complete the topnotch tech package.