Yang Zhang’s Paths of the Soul is a docudrama shot under treacherous conditions, and works beautifully as a study of faith, compassion and spirituality.
Due to the Chinese financial backing, Tibetan players and language and ZHang’s previous dramas about life in modern China (notably Shower, Getting Home and Driverless), some might be expecting a political undercurrent here, yet this is removed from such concerns and is instead simply about the journey, the characters and their unwavering devotion.
Quiet, even meditative scenes open the film as we watch residents of a village in remote Mangkang County (part of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region) go about their day-to-day lives, and it takes some time before conversations begin about whether a group should be going on a pilgrimage to Lhasa, a mere 1200 miles away (!) and possibly a year-long trip. Young Nyima (Nyima Zadui) and his uncle Yang (Yang Pei) think the time is right so that the trek can honour deceased friends and family members, and Rigzin (Rigzin Jimne) and Mu Qu (Mu Qu) agree, while the pregnant Tsring (Tsring Chodron) expects to give birth along the way and little Gyatso (sweetly played by Gyatso) smiles at the idea of missing school.
This is no mere march of the Buddhist faithful though, as the 11-strong bunch (tailed by a tractor hitched to a supply wagon) doesn’t just walk, but instead each takes a few steps and then dives to the ground, their hands protected by what look like sandals, and briefly slides along before getting up and doing it again and again. Surely such reverential activities make this already exhausting and seemingly endless path of the soul far, far longer and more gruelling, but they all travel on cheerfully nonetheless, continuing this ground-diving through intense heat, snow and floodwaters, and even beneath a minor landslide.
This last sequence blurs the line between documentary and docudrama as filmmaker Zhang and his cast and crew are really there in the blizzards and the rain and end up genuinely cold and filthy, and yet, like their characters, the unknown players carry on regardless. You have to admire their energy, their practicality (especially when they run out of money), their warmth and good humour, and the fact that they’re not out there in the punishing elements in order to get a front seat in Heaven but to remember their dear departed and celebrate their lives. And they’re all so wonderfully happy about it.
Rated PG. Paths of the Soul is in cinemas now.