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Travellers and Magicians
Dir. & writ. Khyentse Norbu; feat. Tsewung Dandup, Sonam Lhamo, Lhakpa Dorji, Deki Yangzom, Sonam Kinga (NR)

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Fleeing his stifling post in a small town for the open road, a government officer encounters an apple picker, a merchant's daughter, and a Buddhist Monk in Travellers and Magicians.

The conventions of a road movie are easy to list: two characters, one wild and one shy or naive; broken laws of major or minor magnitude; a painful roadside realization that what's left behind and what lies ahead are just two blips on Fate's radar, etc. In only his second feature, Travellers and Magicians, Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu subtly manipulates the genre's standard tropes to produce a comfortingly ambiguous film that reaches its epiphany so quietly it almost slips away.

When Dondup (Tsewang Dandup), a government officer stationed in a small village in Bhutan, finds the measured pace of village life chaffing, he attempts to flee to America. He is forced to hitchhike after he misses his bus and, on the way, meets an apple picker, a Buddhist monk, and a merchant and his daughter, all headed to the same destination but with different destinies in mind. The film enters Chaucer territory as the monk (Sonam Kinga) draws the group together with his tale of Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), a young student of magic who flees his village for something better, but discovers that his escape may not have been worth the price.

Like the Italian neo-realists, Norbu employs only non-professional actors, who deliver charming, nuanced performances, and he lets the setting serve as a tacit character. But whereas Roberto Rossellini's and Vittori de Sica's masterpieces focus on the grim state of urban Italy and seem to declare boldly, This is how it is, Norbu's film delights in the natural beauty of the Bhutan countryside and asks, Is this how it is?

No satisfactory answer is supplied, but none is needed. The parallels between Dondup's decision and the story of Tashi are clear, and Norbu goes so far as to divide the story into sections that neatly dovetail with the film's narrative, but the obvious direction in which the latter seems to be leading the former disappears. Tashi's magical transformation isn't meant as an example for Dondup, but rather a point of departure for questions about his transformation. Love, lust, responsibility, and tradition all inform Dondup's final decision, which ignores any twists or turns that Hollywood has conditioned us to expect.

Despite the heavy nature of its quandaries, Travellers & Magicians is light on its feet, taking time for comic moments, including a hilarious air-guitar jam, that don't necessarily contribute to a deeper understanding of the characters but add a human element to what otherwise might feel like a modern fable, its characters nothing more than vehicles for a moral.

Travellers & Magicians is a modern fable of sorts, but one whose message isn't pedantic, or even clearly stated. If anything, it encourages hindsight, or a notion that before you leave, you must account for the things you've left behind.

By Aaron Block

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January 12, 2022

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