The sacred and the profane meet head-on in “Samsara,” which traces the fateful decision of a young Buddhist monk to forsake the order for the secular world. With a first half drenched with sights and sounds of the spectacular Himalayas and a second part sporting two erotic and unusual sex scenes, pic services both spiritual and thrill-seeking auds and should thus embrace arthouse biz and ancillary action. After preeming at last fall’s Toronto fest, pic has already opened commercially in several countries, including France.
Three years, three months, three weeks and three days after he began, young Buddhist monk Tashi (Shawn Ku) concludes a marathon meditation session and is subsequently raised to the level of Khenpo by a lama at a monastery in contempo Ladakh, India. Yet Tashi is increasingly troubled by wet dreams and distracted by the sight of women. When he meets Pema (Christy Chung), the daughter of a local farmer, he decides to leave the monastery, although the older Apo (Sherab Sangey) counsels him against it.Tackling the real world with the same intensity he brought to extreme meditation, Tashi wrests Pema from her fiance Dawa (Lhakpa Tsering), starts a family and engineers a better deal for his resentful new father-in-law’s grain in the town. This last provokes the ire of their longtime merchant, who makes their life tough for a time in collaboration with the scheming Dawa.
His desires still healthy, Tashi succumbs to the charms of migrant worker Sajata (Neelesha BaVora), but their athletic tryst so consumes him with feelings of guilt and inadequacy that he decides upon hearing the news of Apo’s death to return to the monastery.
Nine years from concept to completion, “Samsara” reps a distinctive debut for self-taught Indian filmmaker Pan Nalin. And while startling after an hour of Buddhist ritual and routine, Tashi’s initial forest tryst with Pema and Sajata’s neat trick with a stick, her dress and a little simple physics is typical of the imagination Nalin brings to the material. And the story isn’t lacking in wit: Tashi’s dog doesn’t even recognize him when he first changes, and the showdown between Tashi and the merchant is played satisfyingly for laughs.
Cast reps a distinctive collection of faces and effortless work from the leads and non-pros in support. Yet at times the sheer beauty of Ku, Chung and BaVora serves to distract from the tale at hand.
Tech credits are top-notch, with Rali Ralchev’s crisp widescreen camerawork and all other creatives combining to evoke the region with a stunning clarity and detail. Title is the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation by which the spirit works toward a goal through a succession of earthly lives.