Like the vast bulk of contempo docus about Tibet, polished polemical essay “When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun” is unabashedly pro-Tibet and opposed to the Chinese occupation of the country. What makes “Dragon” a refreshing break from biz per usual is its pluralist approach. Pic explores the wide spectrum of political opinion among Tibetans in exile, from supporters of armed insurrection to exponents of nonviolent diplomacy, such as the current Dalai Lama. Fancy lensing style and soundtrack contributions from Philip Glass and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, among others, should help pic find sanctuary at fests and on upscale cablers.
Rather than run through another history lesson recounting how the country was invaded in 1950 (although auds unfamiliar with the story will pick up the main points as the pic goes along), the screenplay by helmer Dirk Simon and co-writer Kristen Simon focuses on the present and recent past, particularly on the pro-Tibetan protests that sprung up worldwide in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. A good chunk of footage covers the demonstrations in San Francisco in 2008, at which the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Richard Gere rally the masses, while pro-Chinese protestors (who get a fair amount of airtime) argue with the Tibetan supporters.
Interviewees here rep an impressively diverse range of positions. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the Dalai Lama himself, defending his “Middle Way” call for Tibetan autonomy within the People’s Republic rather than full independence; Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile; and the teenage heir to the Tibetan throne, Lhagyari Trichen Namgyal Wangchuk, who seems touchingly bewildered by his role in history. Students for a Free Tibet representative Tenzin Dorjee and activist Lhasang Tsering won’t accept anything less than full independence. Numerous other interviewees take up stances somewhere between.
All are allowed to talk at impressive length while a mix of archival footage and stylized original material unspools, often showing time-lapse and helicopter-filmed shots of the country’s astonishing landscape. Editing by Dave Krahling smoothly collages material together and flows neatly with score contributions from Glass (who seems to have basically rejigged his score from Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun”) and others; still, there’s a little too much music, nice though it is. More breathing space and less tightly crammed detail would have made this “Dragon” more attractive to the theatrical market.