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Two Films from South Asia:
"The Terrorist" and "The Cup"

In what may go down in cinema's "discovery" folklore, it was at last year's sleepy Cairo Film Festival that jury president John Malkovich was roused from his prone position by a little-heralded Indian film called 'The Terrorist'.  A few dynamically composed frames and dramatic opening sequences are enough to see what drew the actor's attention and to lend his patronage and prestige to this Tamil film shot only in 18 days by a largely film student crew for a budget of about $50,000.  Seen by only a handful in India, 38-year old cinematographer- writer -director Santosh Sivan's first film about Malli, a young Sri Lankan teenage girl selected to be a living bomb, has gone on to considerable acclaim in its international release. 

Captured luminously by Sivan's camera every frame, and portrayed magnetically by the young actress Ayesha Dharkar, Malli, named after the fragrant jasmine flower, is a young girl who has grown up in the shadow of this shadowy war.  She is already a cold-blooded killer, trained and admired by her peers.  Malli is chosen from the ranks of many eager young girls in the terrorist camp in the Tamil homelands of northern Sri Lanka for the choice suicide mission of assassinating a high ranking political opponent across the water in southern India.

The film is inspired by the circumstances surrounding the real-life assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a suicide bomber from Sri Lanka.  There has been considerable international press on the separatist movement launched by the largely Hindu Tamil Tigers in the northern part of the island nation against the Buddhist Sinhala majority.  But the topical nature of the film ends there.  The film really does not refer to the actual setting and circumstances in Sri Lanka and India at all, much less to the issues at stake.  The Sinhala majority, whose oppressive ethnic and religious policies since the 19??s lie at the root of the Tamil Eelam movement are almost totally absent.  Sivan gives a sympathetic face to the Tamil cause by making Malli the emotional center of the film, but that is far as it goes.  After all, one man's terrorist is another man's patriot.  Much will resonate with a Tamil, Indian or Sri Lankan audience that will not be familiar to the international viewer.  But it is plain that Sivan's film is really about blind devotion to political causes and it's impact on one's life, and humanity.  Terrorism has a human face.

What is ultimately distinctive about 'The Terrorist', however, are the cinematic approaches Sivan employs to flesh out and give moral shading to the issue of devotion and patriotism.  A succession of close-ups and extreme close-ups of Malli brings to the viewer an emotional closeness and startling eroticism.  Tilted camera angles, extreme wide angle lenses, fast paced cutting, hyper-real hues and foreground-background compositions that combine the emotional power of the extreme close-up with the ominous blurring of out-of-focus background action, establish a cinematic style of visual beauty and pleasure in the drama and melodrama of his investigation.   Rarely is there a sequence where Sivan has not given his cinematographer's touch in extracting the dewy beauty of his heroine and the lushness of his locales that indicates a poetic expressionism rather than the scrub-like dryness of northern Sri Lanka.  Above all, there is a minimal reliance on the spoken word; The Terrorist is a film of images and not of dialogue, though in true Indian fashion, there are separate credits for screenplay and dialogue.

This style is expressed by several incidents and characters that Malli encounters as she prepares for her mission.   But first there is her own inner turmoil, described in fragmented flashbacks that come to her as she sits by the swirling waters of the river she must cross, of her memory of an encounter with a dying boy-guerrilla.  It is an original and wrenching sequence of rare erotic beauty that also poignantly underscores the deprivation of the joys of crushes, love and growing up in the lives of the young terrorists.  Sivan further accentuates the wreckage of a normal childhood with Malli's creepily horrific meeting with a troubled water sprite of a boy who is recruited as her guide through he jungles of Sri Lanka. The boy-guide, named Lotus by the rebel leader, has seen it all but has not lost the capacity to be traumatized over and over again by the death, carnage and losses of the bloody war.  The haunting mystery of Malli's discovery of an old woman grief-stricken into a catatonic coma by the loss of her son to the conflict serves as a poignant counterpoint to the gentle satire of the old woman's street-philosopher husband and adds to the film's ability to transcends the expected and the literal.

With its sunny what's-not-to-like charm, Bhutanese writer-director Khentse Norbu's award-winning The Cup also gives us an unexpected look at life behind the doors of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in this tale of a young soccer crazy monk striving to watch the 1998 World Cup Finals on television.  It is affable and genial entertainment: perfect family fare were it not that the grim shadings of the political plight of Tibet and the paradoxes of Western and other outside cultural infiltration might be beyond the grasp of most children.

Like The Terrorist, the film has gone on to considerable international acclaim and success.  But what is thought provoking about The Cup, however, is how unlike other Asian films it is, even well-produced ones like The Terrorist and the inescapable irony that a film about encroaching globalization is a truly globalized product.  With this film, one is ultimately left with a gnawing sense of a certain loss of innocence in the conception of the film, quite unlike the loss of innocence suffered by in the characters of Sivan's film.

The film, the first film in the Tibetan language, is set in a Tibetan monastery in northern India.  Fleeting pictures of the Potala Palace and the Dalai Lama further place the film.  They jog our collective image-bank, trigger associations and the film's sequences unfold smoothly, conventionally.  Sent by their parents, two young boys escape Chinese-occupied Tibet and arrive at the monastery to be ordained.  The political background is established.  

The film then makes a turn to follow the story Orgyen, an enterprising 14-year old scamp of a monk who, grounded after sneaking into town's video parlor to watch the televised matches, leads his friends on a scheme to rent a television set to watch the finals between France and Brazil.  The story, based on real-life incidents, then unfolds under the kind, yet worldly gaze, of Geko, the Monastery's Proctor and the other senior monks of the monastery.   Orgyen and his friends strong-arm the young arrival from Tibet to allow them to pawn a watch given to him by his mother.  The film is then set for the final sequence when, as they finally watch the soccer game, Orgyen is racked with guilt and the film makes a second turn, with the narrative picking up from the wry observations of the head lama to deliver a Big Lesson. 

The Cup is immensely enjoyable.  What makes The Cup work is its basic humanistic approach and the fairly universal elements of classic myth in the young monk-hero's journey that gives the film a comforting and familiar arc.  The film opens with shots of a Coca Cola can being used as a soccer ball by Tibetan monks, their maroon robes hitched up to their knees. The image is telling.  Not merely does it set the tone of the film and the themes that will unfold, such as the encroachment of a global culture on the far-off hitherto isolated cultures, but because it is a cliche and its very power rests on its being a cliche.  How many films have used Coke as a stand-in for America, global culture, and consumerism? ("The Gods Must Be Crazy", with which this film shares much of its appeal, springs to mind.  Even in The Terrorist, Lotus, the water sprite, hands a comforting can to Malli.)  A philosophical bemusement is the standard response being evoked and the audience duly complies.


Shot on location at Chokling Monastery near Dharamsala in Northern India, The Cup is cast entirely with real-life monks and non-actors, presented for the most part as happy fellows cheerily performing their mundane everyday tasks: chanting, peeling vegetables, passing surreptitious notes in class.   Though it is a picture not portrayed in the usual films of outrage or enlightenment that the West usually makes about Tibet, it is still along the comforting and familiar aspect of Buddhism as benign and wise, rather than the more malevolent political background of Buddhist Sri Lanka in The Terrorist.  It is clear the film seeks to tell us how human and average these usually exoticized people are.  This is not surprising, since the film's 38-year old director himself is a believed to be the reincarnation of Jamyang Khentse Wangpo, a religious reformer who revitalized Buddhism in Tibet in the 19th century.  After serving as a consultant to Bernardo Bertolucci on "The Little Buddha" and a three-week course at the New York Film Academy under his belt, Norbu remains a monk, even making some major decisions of film stock and casting for The Cup by harnessing Mo, the forces of Tibetan Buddhist divination.

With an international co-production team that includes Jeremy Thomas, the veteran producer of Bertolucci's films, among others,  The Cup has financing and crew from Britain and Australia.  Though much higher than Sivan's more typical Asian-independent budget for The Terrorist, the $650,000 budget for The Cup is still low by Western standards.  Production values are high and certainly superior to most Indian or Thai or Mongolian films you will see.  The soundtrack is evocative of Philip Glass or is ethnic world music, like the Gyuto Monks and Mongolian overtone singing.   By contrast, the soundtrack in The Terrorist will strike the Western viewer as more idiosyncratic with its swelling male choruses and Wyndham Hill-like piano scores. Paradoxically it will be more familiar as a version of the kind of Asian pop that habitually accompany Asian films.

The difference in the choice and music in the two films is one aspect of the larger and more complex question of what makes an Asian film Asian - or a European film European for that matter - in our current age of global culture.  Granted that the very word Asian is used variously in its geographical, ethnic or cultural senses but in every case, always based on accepted convention and particular social and historical constructs.  One expects a sharing and linking of these constructs - whether language, people, dress, values, attitudes, religion, music or the like - to define an Asian film as Asian in our collective mind.  One expects a certain foreign-ness in a foreign film.  It is indeed an intrinsic part of our enjoyment; otherwise why bother?  But this is not for exotic value alone.  A perspective and a centrism different from our own throws light on our own certainties and assumptions; makes us question our truths and relativities and then give us a deeper understanding of all we have in common.  And there lie some of the intellectual and aesthetic response one has to "other" art.

Unlike The Terrorist, The Cup has no intrinsic strangeness despite its alien setting.  The film is suffused with a gentle, warm humor and pathos in the occasional references to the political situation and cultural loss of Tibet.  If Marcel Duchamp's dictum that no work of art is complete without an audience were applied to international pop entertainment like The Cup, its accessibility would depend on how well it chimes with cultural stances that already exist in the targeted audiences.  

These stances derive from the image of Tibet that has been built up over time in the West.  The international market is primarily the Western markets in the US and Western Europe and of course, modern, educated, cosmopolitan populations the world over, and there is a great deal of sympathy and outrage over the Chinese takeover of Tibet.  A couple of decades later, Tibet and in particular Tibetan Buddhism, offered searchers of counterculture in the West a way to spirituality and inquiry without the danger of religious conversion.  Shangri La was recreated once again in the Western mind of the Vietnam Era.  As with the Dalai Lama himself, it was hard, pointless and perhaps even undesirable to say where the philosophical and the divine ends and the temporal and the political begin.

This is not undesirable.  Without mystery and interiors, The Cup has a campfire sing-along quality that leaves little room for one to respond in one's own individual way.  One comes away a little pleased at one's humanity, liberal response, and the comfort at the affirmation of a world outlook.  It enables the viewer to partake briefly in another's culture without really questioning, discovering or marveling at what the film had to say.   What is absent in The Cup is a distinctive voice, a shadowy interior.  Were one to seek an encounter with new experiences different from our own, experiences that make us question our own and make new discoveries, one is more likely to find it in the beauty and murky horrors of The Terrorist rather than in the picturesque pleasantness of The Cup. 

Perhaps the essential difference lies in more The Terrorist is much more auteuristic in is conception while The Cup, has a smoother, familiar, studio production feel to it.  But another a clue may lie in the very nature of filmmaking.  ln successful films such as The Terrorist and The Cup, there is the happy conjunction of artistic impulse, financing, technology and marketing that is cinema, our age's foremost art of the possible.   If one did not know beforehand, or read the credits, The Cup would certainly come across as a Western film.  Which in a sense it is, given the level of Western artistic collaboration and input in the creative aspect of cinematography, design, editing, music and so on.  

A friend pointed out that while one of the most wonderful things you can do is take the mundane and transform it into the unfamiliar; with Tibet the reverse has happened: an "other" place made into a familiar object of Western cultural consumption.  Perhaps this is how we learn to possess the unfamiliar.  Perhaps in the global interface it is inevitable each begins to exist in the image of the other.   Perhaps this is how Tibet and Tibetan culture will survive: in the West, transmuted into yet another theme in the Great Theme Park of Globalization. 

The Cup does little to seriously challenge pre-held notions or foster a deeper understanding of a culture and an issue that already exists as a popular cause in the West.  A film like Sivan's The Terrorist displaces them and makes us see, though not condone, the world of terrorism, ironically, also in a Buddhist country.  But there are dark horses that upset our most carefully tended views.   While The Cup caters and delivers in its global success, The Terrorist disturbs and haunts our very dreams.

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