A Maoist rebel returns home to bury his Royalist father in “White Sun,” a delicately crafted examination of Nepal’s difficult rebirth after 20 years of war and unrest. Skillfully blending intimate human drama with sharp political observations, Deepak Rauniyar’s outstanding second feature sends a powerful message about the need for tolerance if Nepal is to overcome divisions that remain long after the Comprehensive Peace Accord of 2006. Co-produced by Danny Glover’s New York-based shingle Louverture Films, “White Sun” won the Interfilm award for Promoting Interreligious Dialogue at Venice and deserves to secure international art house exposure. Recent dates at Toronto, Busan, and Taiwan’s Golden Horse event bode well for a long and successful festival run.
Following his uneven 2012 Berlin fest entry “Highway” (also co-produced by Glover’s company), Rauniyar barely puts a foot wrong as director and co-writer of a tale that looks the state of things in Nepal through multi-generational eyes.
A soldier in the Maoist army that defeated Royalist government forces in the 1996-2006 civil war, Chandra (Dayahang Rai) discovers social changes he fought for haven’t yet filtered through to the remote mountain village he left 10 years ago. His portly father, Chitra (Prakash Ghimire), a local bigwig and staunch Royalist, has died in an upstairs bedroom. In accordance with custom, the body cannot be removed through the dwelling’s front door, and must therefore be squeezed through a tiny window before being lowered to the ground and transported down a steep trail for cremation on a riverbank.
As preparations take place for the males-only funeral procession, Chandra reconnects with ex-wife Durga (Asha Margranti), a fiercely independent lower-caste woman accused of “polluting” Chitra’s funeral rites by touching his body after he passed away. Unconcerned with such matters, Durga desperately wants Chandra to sign paternity papers for her young daughter, Pooja (Sumi Malla). Chandra is not the girl’s biological father, but without his signature, Pooja cannot be issued with a birth certificate and subsequently will not be permitted to attend school. In heart-wrenching scenes, Pooja begs Chandra to say he’s her father. Wanting to hear exactly the same thing is Badri (Amrit Pariyar), a 10-year-old war orphan whom local gossips claim was actually fathered by Chandra.
Custom dictates that sons must carry their father’s body to the cremation site. For Chandra, that means stretcher duty with estranged brother Suraj (Rabindra Singh Baniya), a doctor who supported the Royalists. It doesn’t take long for the brothers’ opposing social and political views to boil over. After Suraj storms off Chandra is left with a corpse that can’t be moved or even touched by anyone else unless the super-strict local priest (Deepak Chhetri) gives approval.
Rauniya and co-writer (and editor) David Barker employ the dead body’s stuck-in-transit problem as a potent metaphor for a nation at the crossroads. While adults argue about dogma and ideology during the deadlock, youngsters Pooja and Badri show the way with believable, inspiring and frequently humorous actions that cut through all the bickering and point cautiously to hopes of greater national harmony in the future.
All the performances are tops, right down to the bit parts. Local box office draw Rai is charismatic as the ex-soldier whose personal battles are far from won; Magrati shines as the devoted and extremely pragmatic single mother; and child actors Malla and Pariya are terrific in their first screen roles.
A standout in an across-the-board impressive package, cinematographer Mark O’Fearghail’s beautiful widescreen imagery of Himalayan peaks and mountain trails is nicely complemented by Vivek Maddala’s subtle and sparingly applied score.