Paths of the Soul

Currently streaming on the Cinefile Vimeo on Demand Platform.

Zhang Yang’s film follows an incredible journey by Tibetan villagers on a gruelling 1,200 mile pilgrimage to the holy capital of Lhasa. As they encounter harsh winter weather and cope with physical exhaustion on their months-long trek, the film becomes an almost unbelievable account of their deep-rooted spiritual devotion.

Not only are the pilgrims on foot, they are required to kowtow – they walk three or four steps and then throw themselves to the ground, fully prostrating their bodies with outstretched arms, and touch their foreheads to the ground. Initially their hands are protected by wooden blocks and their bodies by leather aprons, but the journey outlasts these, and a visible bump on an unprotected head is a badge of honour.

This is a fictionalised version of true events, the line between drama and documentary not so much blurred as removed altogether by the use of non-professional actors working without a script. If I understand correctly, cast and crew followed real pilgrims for the best part of a year, making this an extremely arduous, not to say dangerous, piece of film making. And how this depiction of Tibetan Buddhism got past the Chinese censors is something of a miracle in itself.

Supplies and a tent are loaded on to a trailer hauled by a tractor, the communal tent pitched each night and put away each morning. Zhang Yang seems to be more observer than director, seemingly not there to impose a structure, but rather to chronicle whatever events may happen.

Given that this is a very long journey where, other than one birth and one death along the way, little of moment occurs for weeks at a time, this should surely be a monotonous story lacking the vital ingredients to spark the viewers’ interest. But somehow it captivates as these most likeable and admirable people make their way to the holy Mountain to honour the dead, atone for their sins and pray for the happiness of others.

The Tibetan scenery is spectacular, and were it not for the trucks that pass the pilgrims, adding to the danger of their quest, it would be impossible to guess when this was set. It comes as a surprise, both to us and the pilgrims, when the youngest girl produces a piece of technology, and makes a call to granny, at home in her remote village with her mobile phone. Underlining the fact that the hardship of their journey is made by choice, not by a lack of alternatives.

Jim Welsh

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