December 20, 2007
Pan Nalin's film Samsara has spent the last five years in the cinematic equivalent of the bardo. Originally released in 2002 to wide acclaim on the festival circuit, the movie was snapped up by Miramax, only to languish while the Weinstein Brothers had their famous falling out with Disney. Earlier this year, Disney finally relinquished the rights back to the director. And thanks to the good folks at the Rubin Museum, Samsara finally made its U.S. debut last night.
The story is a clever inversion of one of Buddhism's founding stories. Most people who have heard anything about Buddhism know the tale of how Prince Siddhartha renounced his kingdom, his wife and his child to strike out into the wilderness and seek enlightenment. Samsara tells the story of Tashi, a young lama who takes a seemingly opposite path.
Having just completed a three year solitary retreat, Tashi returns to his monastery only to become frustrated and disillusioned with the strictures of monastic life. Having lived as a monk since the age of five, he longs for the outside world, and eventually comes to the realization that in order to develop genuine renunciation, he needs to have something to renounce in the first place. So he abandons the monastery, takes off his monk's robes and sets out to discover the truth of samsara. Soon enough, he finds himself mixed up with women (including the comely Hong Kong movie star Christy Chung), starting a family, getting into business deals that go bad, and generally making a muck of samsaric life. Yet he also seems to discover a kind of realization in everyday life. And when he finally develops the courage to renounce the worldly life he had deliberately sought out, he learns the painful lesson that seeking enlightenment can be a crushing disappointment.
It's a shame this movie is unlikely to see a wider release, as it's an accessible and affecting story, set to a gorgeous Himalayan backdrop (the entire movie was shot on location in Ladakh). And how often do you get to hear Buddhist teachings accompanied by steamy sex scenes? Samsara indeed.
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