By Amy Nicholson
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"Making a good film," says Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu in his director's statement, "is a bit like doing good Buddhist practice." The 38-year-old lama's first feature is a case in point. The story of a group of young Tibetan monks distracted from their meditations by the 1998 World Cup, the film The Cup uses cinema to teach Buddhist values. Under the thoughtful direction of a respected religious leader, those values make for enchanting cinema.
The Cup opens with the sweet voice of a boy chanting while sheets on a clothesline ripple in a gentle breeze. The textures of the textiles fill the screen, then dissolve into a panoramic view of the Himalayas. The mountains in turn give way to fingers pulling apart a tuft of cotton. The impassive beauty of the landscape alternates with the steady effort of human hands until the play of surfaces culminates in the lighting of a candle. These simple, unhurried steps along the path to enlightenment sum up both the mise en scène and the message of The Cup.
Recognized as the incarnation of a nineteenth-century saint, director Norbu entered the monastic life at the tender age of seven. As an adult he dedicated himself to studying Buddhist philosophy and managing monasteries and meditation centers in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Norbu developed an interest in filmmaking when Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci recruited him as an apprentice on the 1993 release Little Buddha. This Keanu Reeves's vehicle, like a spate of other recent films by interested outsiders, exploited the dramatic potential of the Tibetan struggle to preserve their traditions despite the brutal Chinese takeover of their homeland. By contrast The Cup cautions against the self-destructive force of hatred and concentrates instead on the quiet dramas of compassion.
With insider access a National Geographic correspondent would die for, Norbu set his film at the Chokling Monastery in India and recruited his actors from the Tibetan refugee monks who live there. Loosely based on a true story of mischief in the monastery, The Cup features delightful performances by first-time thespians whose roles were in many cases assigned not by the director but by Buddhist rites of divination. Thirteen-year-old Jamang Lodro is endearing in the role of Orgyen, a feisty troublemaker determined to see championship soccer. His real-life father plays Geko, the elder fruitlessly determined to discipline him. The antics of adolescent monks, who fashion finger puppets during prayer and hide soccer jerseys under their robes, lighten up Buddhist ritual that might otherwise seem exotic and inaccessible.
A story of exiles yearning for their homeland, The Cuphas a special resonance for Miami audiences. The old abbot keeps his belongings packed for the journey back home. A mother sends her two young boys to live under the abbot's care, rather than suffer Chinese rule in Tibet. Soccer-obsessed Orgyen represents the new generation that sees their homeland as foreign and a little bit backward. "Is it true," he asks one of the newly arrived boys, "that Tibetans bathe only one time in their lives?" Buddhist teachings suggest a very Tibetan course out of exile, however. "Let me love my neighbor," prays the abbot, "as I love myself." -- Celeste Fraser Delgado
Takeshi Kitano's latest film is a surprising departure for those familiar with his bruising gangster pictures such as Hani-Bi (Fireworks). Kikujiro is a deadpan road picture that punctuates a painterly stillness with gorgeous stylistic intrusions. The film gives us an engaging character study of an endearing misanthrope through the sulking eyes of a young boy. When the character of Kikujiro (played masterfully by Beat Takeshi) falls flat it is intentional: Takeshi uses slapstick pratfalls that shift his international persona from Humphrey Bogart toward Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin is an appropriate launching point for this story of a young boy's (Masao) search for his mother with an unwilling man serving as his guardian (Kikujiro). The film is by no means an Adam Sandler-esque calculated makeover (instant charm, insert cute kid), though. The reluctant tenderness of Kikujiro is closer to Chaplin's The Kid. The film's simplicity should not be confused with monotony; the quiet elegance of the movie is better described as Zen than dull. Using Masao's (played by Yusuke Sekiguchi) journal as a framing device works well. Each page offers the earnestness of a child's report about his summer vacation, but also notes the transformation of a man who has blossomed from a manipulative, comical lout into a caring individual.
The film's use of color is incredibly dynamic, shifting from blue-tinted, deeply sad landscapes to the Crayola-like internal mindscapes of Masao. Kitano depicts demons and a bizarre child molester in a kabuki style that is simultaneously humorous and horrifying. Kitano demonstrates a respect for the sensitivity of children, and is visionary in depicting the frightening potential of their imagination.
The film flirts with mawkishness along the way: Masao is engulfed in angel imagery like some kind of department-store Christmas tree. The film's tenderness is borderline Pollyanna: The cliché of the hesitant father who awakens to responsibility has been seen in countless mutations, including afterschool specials. Kitano, however, pulls it off through a whimsical denouement in which the seeming slowness and sadness of the film gives way to a playful idyll. Characters from other journey films who act against type (Easy Rider-style bikers decked out in Misfits T-shirts, a traveling minstrel) pass Masao and Kikujiro along the way. They are united at a campground after Masao has found his mother, finally forming a home and creating a temporary space for frivolity. Games of "freeze" and make-believe re-enactments of activities such as fishing leave the viewer just as enchanted as the boy.
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