By Russell Smith
MAY 24, 1999:
D: Paul Wagner; with Jampa Kelsand, Dadon, Richard Chang, Taije Silverman. (Not Rated, 97 min.)
Take a deep breath, compassion-fatigued movie fans; here comes another challenge
to your ability to enjoy whatever decadent, conscience-narcotizing leisure activity
you had planned for the weekend. And no, nice try, but you haven't "done" Tibet just
because you've already seen Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. This new fictional drama
from Oscar-winning American documentarian Paul Wagner (The Stone Carvers) actually
serves as an update to those films by setting its story in the milieu of a modern-day
Tibet still under the oppressive heel of Chinese military occupiers. If you feel
free to dodge this urgent, outrage-steeped tale because you're already up on the
political issues at hand, then give due credit to people like Wagner and the reluctant
dissidents whose stories he tells. Taking very real personal risks, he and his crew
secretly shot much of Windhorse on location in Tibet using a Hi-8 video camera and
silent gestures for "cut," "action," and other directorial commands. One of the most
compelling performances comes from a Tibetan actress whose name had to be withheld
for fear of official retaliation. As a political clarion call and bravura piece of
guerrilla filmmaking, then, Windhorse deserves all the bouquets we can toss its way.
Unfortunately, like countless other dramas that serve largely as gel caps housing
metered doses of morally therapeutic content, the story itself is rather pedestrian.
Windhorse's three main characters are a man named Dorjee (Kelsand), his sister, Dolkar
(Tibetan-American singer Dadon) and their cousin, Pema (the previously mentioned
anonymous actress). Their story begins in 1979 when their grandfather is shot by
Chinese soldiers for posting an anti-occupation handbill. The action then jumps ahead
to the present, where we find Dolkar as a popular disco chanteuse whose Chinese boyfriend
(Chang) has finagled her a lucrative record deal to sing pro-Maoist propaganda ballads.
Dorjee, for reasons we're not made to fully understand, has become a self-loathing
alcoholic bum who hangs out all day shooting pool and grousing ineffectually about
the Chinese. Both siblings' lives are brought up short when Pema, now a Buddhist
nun, is arrested and brutalized for screaming "Free Tibet" in public. Tending to
the dying Pema shames Dorjee and Dolkar into giving up their morally untenable lifestyles
and -- aided by an adventurous American student named Amy (the doe-eyed, ethereal
Silverman) -- trying to get some news of the atrocities to the outside world. There's
no lack of skill or conviction among Wagner's young, unsung core cast. Most, in fact,
have moments in which they truly shine, especially Dadon and Chang in scenes that
show them recognizing the cravenness of their collaboration with the government.
But for all its gutsiness and sporadic power, Windhorse lacks consistent dramatic
force because of a mundane storyline, one-note main characters, and ludicrously nuance-free
villains who look and act like bad guys from silent-era melodramas. Still, Windhorse's
overriding impression isn't one of stultifying propaganda but of a calm, buoyant
faith that good, fortified by truth and courage, is unconquerable. Like the tiny,
prayer-inscribed paper "windhorses" of its title, this film represents hope for not
only the possible triumph of good but the power of receptive hearts to assure it.
Reason enough, I'd say, to stay awake and keep believing.
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