Centered on the rivalry between two ace archers from neighboring villages, “The Sacred Arrow” is a reductionist fable about how to be a good sport. Abandoning his usual wry observations on contemporary cultural transitions in his native Tibet, helmer-scribe Pema Tseden here delves into the realm of myth and tradition, delivering gussied-up cliches about ethnic exotica as if he were dispensing profound wisdom. Too dull for general audiences and not radical enough for festivals, this Shanghai Film Festival competition premiere misses the mark.
Although his previous film, “Old Dog,” was clearly a critique of voracious market forces, Tseden’s first two features, “The Silent Holy Stones” and “The Search,” were thoughtfully ambivalent about modernization. Here, by contrast, Tseden presents a new generation of Tibetans embracing new technologies and disrespecting their old customs in a nuance-free manner. As in “The Search,” the helmer evokes a historical tale — this time, the assassination of King Langdarma by the Tibetan monk Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje, using an arrow — but with far less metaphoric resonance.
In the Tibetan region of Amdo (in China’s Qinghai province), the neighboring villages of Lhalung and Damo hold an annual archery competition. According to a thousand-year-old custom, the winner gets to keep an arrow, a sacred relic, until the following year’s contest; this year, the arrow again goes to the Damo team, thanks to the sharp shooting of Nyima (Sonam Nyima). Lhalung’s top archer, Dradon (Zinchen Denchu), doesn’t take the defeat well, dismissing Nyima’s achievement as a mere fluke, and Nyima’s attempts at conciliation only heighten his resentment.
When Dradon gets thoroughly drunk and stumbles on his sister Dekyid (Dekyid) and Nyima having tete-a-tete in the woods, harsh words are exchanged: “You are like a dog!” “You are like a yak!” The latter slur seems to have crossed the line in the Tibetan book of insults, yielding messy consequences.
The fact that archery dominates the villagers’ lives is reiterated throughout the film; we even see little boys holding their own imitation contests. Yet the boozy, bellicose men behave more or less like soccer hooligans, and there’s no effort to depict the social factors underlying this communal obsession. (Is it because the younger generation’s sole means of employment is logging to make more arrows?) Characters are portrayed as mere archetypes; elders converse in archly sagacious tones, and villagers are dressed in red or white, like mere ciphers. The ruggedly handsome Nyima and ravishing Dekyid are lovely to behold, but there’s not much tension in the way their romance pans out, given how passive their characters are in pursuing their own happiness.
The film is really about Dradon’s rite of passage into true manhood, which includes learning to be a graceful loser. However, Denchu’s limited range as an actor makes this gradual process of enlightenment hardly noticeable. Whether fuming or sulking, his character is so self-obsessed, few audiences will even care if he wins or loses.
Craft contributions are more conventional than Tseden’s work in his earlier rugged, independent style. Luo Pan, who lensed another Tibet-set film, “Ganglamedo,” delivers prettified images of the barren, arid landscape, while Liu Fang and Guru Wangyal’s editing leaves too many lulls. The title means “Arrow of Five Colors.”