Tharlo (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Aaron Cutler

Directed by Pema Tseden; executive produced by Qin Ling; produced by Gao Hong, Xu Li, Sun Jialin, Wu Leilei, and Sean Wang; adapted by Pema Tseden from his own short story “Tharlo”; cinematography by Lu Songye; edited by Gregorius Arya and Song Bing; music by Wang Jue; art direction by Daktse Dundrupp; starring Shide Nyima and Yangshik Tso. DVD, B&W, 123 min., Tibetan dialogue with English subtitles, 2015. An Icarus Films release.

Neorealism marks the meeting point of melodrama and vérité filmmaking. The genre has been championed by André Bazin and by innumerable other critics since partly for its ability to cleanly fuse documentary with fiction, thus passing the illusion of sculpting real life into the elusive product called art without distorting the source material. The genre’s masters—from Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini to Abbas Kiarostami and the Dardenne brothers—have followed the same basic formula, one to which the Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden also adheres in his wonderful film Tharlo. Within this rubric, narratives are scripted around lower-class characters living on society’s edges. The works are consistently photographed beyond the confines of studio settings in places that might actually be inhabited by the characters, who are attired in clothing appropriate to their circumstances and represented with the bodies and faces of actors (often, though far from always, untrained) who simply look their parts. In the best neorealist films, cold fact becomes potent metaphor, and the condition of a person or small group of people comes to stand movingly for the situation of many.

The character of Tharlo is, by nature, a country bumpkin. The shepherd is twenty-nine years old in Pema Tseden’s original short story “Tharlo,” from which the director adapted a film with the character’s age changed to forty (or so the birth certificate-less Tharlo thinks). In both works of art, he is plainly an innocent soul who is comfortable with his solitary mountain life and more than a bit befuddled by the need that others have pressed upon him to journey to the large town near him to obtain an official ID. In both texts, Tharlo is also marked by a few distinguishing characteristics, among them an excellent memory and a physical feature so atypical that it has even earned him a nickname: Ponytail.

Tharlo (Shide Nyima), nicknamed Ponytail, is a 40-year-old shepherd who is comfortable in a solitary mountain life.

“Tharlo had always had a ponytail,” begins the source story, which appears in English for the first time (courtesy of Jessica Yeung’s clear-reading translation) in booklet form as part of Icarus Films’ new DVD release of Tharlo, the most elaborate edition of an individual film that the small distributor has yet produced. This opening line establishes the tale as a character study of a person steeped in tradition, with the “always” pointing in telltale fashion to a moment when things will change. The story is made up primarily of clipped dialogue and straightforward descriptions of action, with an occasional line of psychological insight (either into Tharlo or into one of his more urbane interlocutors), proceeding somewhat like Ernest Hemingway’s short fiction. Its twenty-plus pages are transformed into two-plus hours of screen time, consisting of meticulously detailed black-and-white widescreen images that appear over the course of only eighty-four shots. As they do on the page, the story’s surfaces onscreen tell almost—almost—everything.

In addition to the story, the DVD release of Tharlo contains elegantly printed stills, plus a helpful video record of a postscreening Q&A with the filmmaker at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (whose insightful details include a brief discussion of the film’s usage of the Tibetan language) and a curious hip-hop music video directed by Pema Tseden and tied into the film. The highlight of the release is the lovely transfer of the film itself, which brings the settings and the actors into beautiful relief through one another.

Chief among the performers is Shide Nyima in the film’s title role—Pema Tseden even wrote the short story with the actor in mind. The performer is known mainly in Tibet as a comedian, and one of his distinguishing features is, in fact, his ponytail, often used to assay yokel roles. As in Pema Tseden’s earlier features, much of the first half of Tharlo is comic in nature, and the exaggerated manners that the actor brings to his performance (both in speech and in body posture) greatly help to convey the humor in Tharlo’s situation. In the film’s early scenes, with Tharlo discussing the problem of an ID with a police chief (played by an unidentified actor) at the station, the character is presented as a person who naively throws himself into any current task, whether it be recounting the numbers of various animals in his care in eager, leaning-forward seated fashion or standing like a hunched sentinel and doggedly reciting great swaths of Chairman Mao’s precepts that he had memorized years earlier in school. Shide Nyima has a remarkably malleable body that moves gracefully inside Tharlo’s loose clothing in a marvelous rendering of awkwardness; and, like all great clowns, he also has a remarkably malleable face that proves to be capable of expressively sliding between registers of hope, confusion, and surprise.

Tharlo (Shide Nyima) discusses the problem of an ID with the town's police chief.

Tharlo’s face remains little seen throughout this initial extended long shot dramatizing the police chief’s bureaucratic display of power over Tharlo. It comes into closer view during subsequent scenes of him being confronted with his own image, first in a touristic portrait photo shop with images of the Great Wall of China and of New York City behind him, then in a salon where he goes to clean up in order to achieve the best possible photo. In the Q&A with Pema Tseden included on the Icarus release, the filmmaker discusses the importance of constructing frames in which Tharlo appears both on his own and as seen through mirrors. The impression given is that, in the town, Tharlo is made to face himself in a way that he has never done in the countryside, and that the strangeness of this auto-confrontation proves to be very disorienting.

The condition of Tharlo is intended to stand for a universal Tibetan condition, one shared by a people living in an autonomous region overseen by the Chinese government whose long history and set of traditions are being unmoored by the modern world. The steadily ongoing dislodging of rural native Tibetans from their lifestyles by greater social forces that they do not understand has been a central theme in the forty-eight-year-old Pema Tseden’s artistic output (which includes a prolific supply of prose fiction in addition to several films) ever since he began his career. His feature The Search (2007), for example, is often cited (with debatable accuracy) as the first film ever shot in Tibet to be filmed entirely with a Tibetan crew and spoken entirely in the Tibetan language; the work episodically follows a group of filmmakers who travel throughout several villages in search of thespians for their adaptation of a classic Tibetan opera. The film Old Dog (2011) accompanies the destiny of a Tibetan shepherd who fights to keep his beloved mastiff from the hands of a Chinese dealer. Pema Tseden’s films are humanistic tragicomedies that consistently offer both great acting and amazing landscape studies, with the two interlinked in depictions of people who strive, despite meager resources, to stand out from their awesome natural surroundings.

The complexity of Tharlo’s situation is enhanced by the presence of another complex character. She is the young woman—unnamed in the short story, named “Yangtso” in the film—who runs the salon where Tharlo goes to have his hair washed, and who subsequently takes him to a karaoke bar, then back to her own abode, after which she continues to express a wish to spend more time with him. What could easily be a stereotypical character—that of the opportunistic temptress leading an older man to ruin—gains poignancy through nuanced portraiture. Yangtso is portrayed by Yangshik Tso in an impressive performance of continual, yet unspoken decision-making, with Yangtso consistently reacting to the older man as she gauges how much he understands of contemporary urban life. As Yangtso varies between expressions of patience and impatience with him, the actress leaves ambiguous the extent to which she wishes to take advantage of Tharlo and the extent to which she opens her heart to him.

Tharlo (Shide Nyima) and Yangtso (Yangshik Tso), the salon owner who washes his hair.

Tharlo’s tragedy lies in the extent to which he walks the world with his heart open, leading to an emotional bruising over the course of the film that impacts the rest of his being. The structure of Tharlo itself relies on mirroring, with earlier and later scenes reflecting each other to show the ways in which Tharlo’s time spent wandering lost in the town (both with and without Yangtso) changes him. His initial displacement in the karaoke bar, where the professed teetotaler reluctantly agrees to drink with Yangtso and later drunkenly sings a love song, is echoed in a later scene where he awkwardly pleads with Yangtso to leave a popular singer’s performance and back to more karaoke. The scene of both Tharlo and Yangtso cautiously regarding themselves in the salon mirror while she gives him his first dry wash reverberates late in the film when, with both people in their salon positions again, she asks if he will do something else to civilize his look even further for her. The early instant in which Tharlo proudly recites Chairman Mao’s teachings from memory recurs in different form toward the film’s end when, back at the police station before the chief, he struggles to remember any of the words from his once-treasured text.

In between come passages in the mountains where Tharlo, having returned home, finds himself suddenly unable to protect the sheep in his care from predators and himself from the angry overseer that owns most of them. These episodes, not present in the short story, add weight and flesh to Tharlo’s displacement. So does the film’s final scene, staged back in the mountains, in which Tharlo at last concludes that the modern world is not for him. Throughout, the film works to give us a broad yet intimate view of a life, one that has been changed profoundly—in ways which are largely hinted, perhaps because the old ways can no longer be shown—long before Tharlo begins.

Aaron Cutler works with Mariana Shellard on organizing film series through the initiative Mutual Films and keeps a film criticism website, The Moviegoer.

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Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 3