Buddhist legend brings warnings of bad karma in “Milarepa,” a worthy and engaging period pic from Bhutan. A thesp in contempo Bhutanese arthouse faves “The Cup” and “Travellers and Magicians,” Buddhist monk Neten Chokling makes his helming bow with this traditional yarn. Greater emphasis on spiritual teaching than Khyentse Norbu’s aforementioned more entertaining efforts, make this a tougher sell, but film would still make a classy pickup for international distribs. Niche auds consisting of arthouse savvy champagne Buddhists and the festival faithful will lap this up despite a lack of concessions to Western storytelling.
As the opening titles explain, in 11th century Tibet, Milarepa, a man destined to become a spiritual figurehead in Buddhism was born as Thopaga (Jamyang Lodro). A privileged member of his village, the young Thopaga’s has his life turned upside down when his father dies. Control of the family’s finances and property is handed over to Thopaga’s Uncle Gyalsten (Gonpo) and Aunt Peydon (Tsamchoe) until the dead man’s son comes of age.
In the interim, Gyalsten and Peydon make the most of their newly acquired wealth forcing Thopaga, his mother Kargyen (Kelsang Chukie Tethtong) and his young sister Peta (Tashi Lhamo) to toil as their servants.
When Thopaga reaches 16, Kargyen throws an engagement bash for her son’s long anticipated wedding, using the occasion to make a bid to regain her property and status.
Thopaga’s mother finds no support from the townfolk. In desperation, Kargyen sends her son on a pilgrimage to learn black magic from a renowned sage and acquire the skills to take revenge. In typical “careful what you wish for” style, remainder of the yarn outlines the spiritual lesson for those who seek retribution.
Pic varies in tone from intense to whimsical, with lighthearted moments emerging in scenes when Thopaga first witnesses the power of magic. Overall story has a didactic air that recalls awkward biblical epics. That said, generally, dramatic tension is maintained, and some moments shine. Perfs are occasionally rough but helming is otherwise solid, making good use of spectacular India locations and serviceable CGI effects.
Lensing is grainy due to blowup from super16, but impressive nevertheless. Other tech credits are pro.