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PostPosted: Sun May 09, 2021 6:05 pm 
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Harsh winters for Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Jin Huaqing is a Chinese documentary filmmaker with numerous short films to his credit. In Dark Red Forest he spent a year focusing on Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Thousands of them are in a single monastery, Yarchen Monastery located on the Tibetan Plateau, and during the coldest time of the year move out to huts scattered over a mountain, one num per hut. Their outer garb is a thick dark red cloth. At the end of the season the huts are taken apart and lugged back. What we get is an external picture of an austere spiritual practice. There is even a time when some prostate themselves over and over moving along a rough road. They wear padding on their fronts to mitigate the roughness. There is also a sequence of testing before an audience, where what appear to be very young nuns are in the spotlight, speaking with shrill, artificial voices. There are the familiar trappings, the "prayer wheels" endlessly spun, the big drums held aloft. What else do we see? What do we learn? Jin Huaqing has no narration, only the bare bones of information at the outset in captions, 10,000 nuns, 4,000 meter elevation, and so forth. We also learn from signage that the Chinese want to subsume Tibetans into the mainland population and aren't very friendly toward monasteries.

There is an austere beauty in the harsh landscape at times - the snow on the ground, the dawn light over the mountain, the flushed faces of the nuns. They are of all ages from young to pretty old. With their shaven heads, they look alike, and sometimes it's hard to tell which gender they are. The sheer population is an eye-opener. There are revealing moments. Besides the very young performers, we see nuns being questioned by a monk (whom we do not see), who often finds fault with their knowledge, or when they are tongue-tied gently dismisses them. They are told to work harder. Some are told they must go home, and this is hard for them to take, especially after many years as a nun, and the voice says they may be too old now to have children, and should find another place to be a nun.

This did not have the beauty of some films about western Christian monasteries. The monastery itself in those films seems a comforting, enveloping place, with its thick stone walls and its rituals organizing the day from dawn to dusk. As can happen with the documentary without narration, we're left with many questions. It's not clear what the accommodations in the monastery are like, also not clear how the nuns sleep in the huts, or do they sleep there at all? Many details seem to be missing.

There's a sequence where nuns seek help for ailments. It can be little surprise that they rely heavily on folk medicine. Still neither the diagnosis nor the prescription leaves one confident that they're in reliable hands.

As a friend of mine used to say after many a ND/NF screening, "That's another place I never have to go." Is this, indeed, the last word? There seem many ways of learning more. But this seems a difficult subject, Tibetan Buddhism being less amenable to western study than the Japanese kind.

Dark Red Forest, 85 mins., debuts in New Directors/New Films May 2021. Screened at home for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021).

Not apparently yet listed on IMDb.

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