There’s never been a road movie quite like “Paths of the Soul,” an extraordinary chronicle of ordinary Tibetan citizens undertaking a 1,200-mile pilgrimage to Lhasa. Much more than simply a long walk down National Highway 318, this act of Buddhist devotion requires participants to prostrate themselves every few yards while trucks and cars zoom past. Filmed in simple documentary fashion and performed with immaculate conviction by a non-professional cast, the pic, helmed by Zhang Yang (“Shower,” “Getting Home”) is a stirring study in faith and spirituality that will inspire many viewers to think about big and small questions of life. A difficult commercial path lies ahead, but fests everywhere will welcome this one-of-a-kind item.
Even though the film offers no comment on the touchy topic of Tibetan political history, it’s still worth mentioning that the onscreen title of “Paths of the Soul” is shown in Tibetan script, and is preceded by the official seal of China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Given that many Chinese films with religious and spiritual themes have met with disapproval at the official level, it’s interesting to note the unhindered production and exhibition, thus far, of Zhang’s film.
Simplicity is the key to every aspect of the movie. Keeping his camera at a distance and rarely indulging in closeups, Zhang gently shows how Buddhist beliefs and practices are woven into every facet of life in a remote village in Mangkang County, part of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. It seems perfectly natural when Nyima (Nyima Zadui) and his uncle, Yang (Yang Pei), have a very relaxed conversation and decide the time is right for a pilgrimage to Lhasa. For Yang, the trip is especially important: His brother died before being able to make the journey, and Yang himself has never traveled beyond his village.
Eventually an 11-member party takes shape. Although the inclusion of pregnant woman Tsring (Tsring Chodron) and young girl Gyatso (Gyatso) seems somewhat improbable on first impression, the pure and uplifting motivations of everyone involved are never in doubt. Personal spiritual fulfilment is just part of the process: The higher goal is to pray for the well-being and happiness of others. For young male participants Rigzin (Rigzin Jigme) and Mu Qu (Mu Qu), the trip to Lhasa is very much about honoring two people who died while building a house in the village.
Viewers unfamiliar with the actual procedure of this particular pilgrimage will be amazed and astonished by what happens once a supply wagon is hitched to a rickety tractor and the legwork commences. Wearing long aprons made of animal skin and protective wooden boards affixed to palms of hands the pilgrims take a few steps before “diving” onto the ground. This is followed by touching the earth with the forehead and clapping the boards together to complete the ritual. This movement can perhaps best be described as “bodysurfing” on solid ground.
Through rain, snow and blistering heat, and at altitudes of 12,000 feet, the seven-month trek continues. In one amazing sequence, Gyatso and her father, Seba (Seba Jiangcuo), are showered by rocks and stones tumbling down a cliff. If the line between documentary and fiction weren’t blurred enough already, it becomes indiscernible as the actors continue their prostrations, narrowly avoiding major injuries in the process. At another point the group shows its unwavering devotion by cheerfully “swimming” across a flooded section of road.
Counterbalancing the slow progress and physically punishing nature of the pilgrimage are illuminating and inspiring stops along the way. In a lovely sequence, the group is given shelter by a kind old farmer and repay him by plowing his barley fields. The birth of Tsring’s baby will melt many viewers’ hearts, and there’s a positively exquisite scene in which the group dance and sing with unbridled joy while camped on a verdant riverbank worthy of a Renoir painting.
The pace ramps up slightly and very effectively as the group strikes financial problems just short of Lhasa. With pragmatism to match their devotion, they simply stop for a while to work as laborers and car-wash attendants before pressing on to the final destination. Sequences in Lhasa include beautifully filmed visits to sacred temples and fascinating conversations with holy men.
Though credited as screenwriter, Zhang declares in the production notes that “there was no script,” and “everything was unknown.” Many viewers will experience a similar sense of discovery and wonder as the lengthy journey unfolds. Importantly, the film at no stage feels even remotely like a Buddhist recruitment exercise.
Cinematographer Guo Daming delivers any number of beautifully framed wide shots showing the 11 hardy devotees inching their way across landscapes varying from dusty and desolate plains to magnificently green pastures and forests. The absence of a music score only enhances the film’s message about striving for serenity and peacefulness. All other technical work is first-rate.