A cultivated sense of calm — no more or less than you’d expect from a study of Buddhist practice — permeates “Golden Kingdom,” an impressively disciplined, occasionally transporting debut feature from globe-trotting American helmer Brian Perkins. Blending documentary-style observation with supernaturally embellished storytelling, this picturesque portrait of four child monks in Myanmar forced to fend to themselves in the absence of their mentor adds a bracing spiritual dimension to an otherwise universal boys-to-men arc. Premiered in Berlin’s youth-oriented Generation strand, the film may only resonate with children of a particularly patient persuasion, but international auds will find keys to this particular “Kingdom” via ample festival travel and niche arthouse bookings.
The Portland-born Perkins is hardly the first visiting filmmaker to shed some light on a religion still subject to exoticization and commercial exploitation in Western culture, but “Golden Kingdom” is a more intimate appreciation of Buddhism than Martin Scorsese’s rapturous “Kundun” or Bernardo Bertolucci’s earnest but misguided “Little Buddha.” The first feature film shot in Myanmar since the civil war-blighted region was opened up to the outside world in the last decade, “Kingdom” has been conceived and constructed with painstaking dedication to authenticity: Three of the film’s four young leads are real-life apprentice monks, while the director’s own extensive research into the history, traditions and language of the territory is evident in the final product.
There’s less focus in Perkins’s film on ritualized spectacle, but beauty emerges anyway from the finer details of everyday religious custom: Under the steadily focused, pristinely composed gaze of Bella Halben’s camera, the mere lighting of a match gains acquires a hushed sense of consequence. That, indeed, is the image that bookends this placidly paced adventure; everything in between has a folkloric air to it, as if viewed in the eye of the flame. Furthermore, it’s difficult to identify quite when the narrative takes place, given the spartan, convenience-free state of the remote monastery in which it is set, and glimpses of conflict that has been raging in Burma since the country attained independence in 1948. Yet such imprecision seems paradoxically calculated in a film dedicated to the constancy of inner faith amid outer turmoil.
It’s the stabilizing influence of spirituality, as much the seclusion of the jungle, that appears to shelter these four young ko yin (junior monks) from harsher realities. When the monastery’s chief abbot (U Zaw Ti Ka, himself a real-life Buddhist sayadaw) is called away on a mission to the distant city, however, the boys are left to face practical obstacles that place greater demands on their faith than their routine of peaceable piety. The most resourceful and charismatic of the boys, Witizara (Shine Htet Zaw), is placed in charge, and the film’s focus gradually shifts to his own internal quest for maturity and serenity — not, for most boys, a complementary pair of objectives. The only non-monk of the quartet — though a similarly unaffected non-pro presence — the young actor is an engaging, visibly thoughtful guide for viewers into the pic’s esoteric reaches; Perkins keeps a respectfully objective distance from Buddhist tradition itself, but doesn’t shy away from uncanny incursions on the narrative.
At a little more than 100 minutes, “Golden Kingdom” might benefit from an even more slender frame; a handful of lulls and repetitive tests of resilience within Witizara’s journey to self threaten to break the film’s meditative spell. Even at its most languorous, however, the film’s shimmering imagery never palls: Working with soft natural light and an earthy palette, Halben’s lensing doesn’t feel obliged to sweeten the wonder of the location, but provokes a number of gasps anyway. David C. Hughes’s score is similarly sympathetic to the pic’s organic approach, seamlessly fusing traditional instrumentation with the avian chirrups and wind-rustled foliage of its sound design.