Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2016 5:18 pm 
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SHINE HTET ZAW IN GOLDEN KINGDOM

Four little boys left to maintain a Buddhist monastery

The four little ko yin (junior monks) look rather pathetic as they huddle together watching their abbot or sayadaw (U Zaw Ti Ka) make his shaky way down the wild mountain path from the monastery in Northeast Burma (Myanmar). He has been called to the capital. He doesn't know when he'll come back. Not soon; maybe never. The boys are orphans, and now they are being returned to the state from which they came, alone again, in a country of civil war and dictatorship, Up here in the forest and mountains they're far away from everything, fortunately - or are they? They lack the resources to feed themselves. They have relied one essential daily visitor bringing them a gift of food. Can four little boys maintain a Buddhist monastery? They seem to know how to do only two things: pray and play. But what is ritual if not a stay against confusion? And what is play if not a way to keep up the spirits?

They continue the rituals of their days, praying in the temple first thing, chanting in the classroom off the last lesson on the blackboard. As Guy Lodge points out in his Berlinale review for Variety, the film is among other things a study of Buddhist practice, which makes its air of "cultivated calm" logical. (There are also references to Burmese folklore.) Rudderless, they are, but still chugging along. And sometimes playing. But the food stops coming, and they must survive on yesterday's leftover rice.

Though unresponsive viewer find this film flat and uneventful, and indeed its placid, repetitious structure contains longueurs and needless repetitions that could use some editing. But beneath its outward cam it has a radical and shocking side. It brings up issues of peace and disorder, freedom and discipline, leadership, tradition and the individual talent, not to mention parenthood and loss. Director Brian Perkins captures the beauty of this world and its peacefulness, and then subtly shatters the calm, showing its essential fragility. This is the first feature film made in Myanmar since it was reopened to outsiders after the civil war, and part of the danger the boys may face is the horror, perhaps not as far off as it might seem, of warfare.

There is a whisper here of the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose characters often see ghosts. Once the boys are on their own, strange, magical happenings begin. Witazara (Shine Htet Zaw), the boy left in charge, has to protect the little band from strangeness. Eventually Witzazara goes on a kind of walkabout, and must face the quiet menace in the air all about him in the lovely wild open greenness of the monastery's surroundings. Shine Htet Zaw has an open, blank face, innocent and pure. Three of the actors in the film (but not this lead actor) are actual monks.

To be sure, this film is, like "Joe" Weerasethakul's, given to drifting and to longeurs, and is not for everyone but will appeal most to those interested in spirituality and youth and in Buddhism. This is of course a junior-grade Asian coming of age tale whose special mood comes from the way, as Lodge puts it, it blends "documentary-style observation with supernaturally embellished storytelling." A few patient child viewers will be fascinated to observe ones as young as them living a dedicated spiritual life, something virtually unknown in the West. (They may discover the universality of hands pressed together in prayer and worshipful greeting, of the head bowed down touching the ground honoring a higher power.) The film sows tests that are as much of mind and soul as body.

Portland-born filmmaker Brian Perkins, whose head is shaven like a Buddhist monk's, won awards during studies at NYU and UC Berkeley and then directed music videos in LA and New York. He worked on Israeli director Alma Har'el's 2011 film Bombay Beach about impoverished survivors on the edge of the Salton Sea (itdebuted at the Berlinale and won a top award at Tribeca). Having traveled widely in remote areas of Asia and India, he reportedly "created a network of relationships in the monasteries and villages of Burma," learning to speak Burmese, thus preparing to make this debut feature film in the challenge of this far-off location. Essential also to the mood is the precise yet unobtrusive camera of Bella Halben, as well as the delicate use of ambient sound and thrifty concrete music score by David C. Hughes. As Lodge notes, this film is "a more intimate appreciation of Buddhism than Martin Scorsese’s rapturous Kundun or Bernardo Bertolucci’s earnest but misguided Little Buddha." In the Buddhist spirit, Perkins doesn't get in the way.

Golden Kingdom, 104 mins., in Burmese, debuted at Berlin 9 Feb 2015 in the festival'youth-oriented Generation strand, and was nominated for Best First Feature; showed at about a dozen other international festivals including Teheran, Prague, Seoul, Vancouver, Bangkok and Mill Valley (its US premiere 13 Oct. 2015). The film was supported by Bank & Shoal, an independent production company based in the US and Germany formed by Perkins in 2013. US theatrical release begins 17 June 2016 (Roxie, San Francisco, Rafael Film Center, San Rafael); and 24 June (Rialto Cinemas, Berkeley & Sebastopol). Kino Lorber will distribute thereafter nationwide. Available on VOD from 18 Nov. 2016.

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