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DUKAR TSERANG; A SONG FOR YOU 他与罗耶戴尔 (2020)

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Rural Tibetan singer seeks pop marketability

A Song for You, Tibetan version, starts out with a swashbuckling swagger from its great-looking young protagonist Ngawang (Damtin Tserang) a nomad and shepherd-singer's son from the high Tibetan plateau part of southwestern China, riding in on a motorcycle with a black helmet, which he neglects to take off when he enters a room. Ngawang is going forth with his long-stringed mandolin and the intention of conquering the world. He wears his long sheepskin coat like a royal robe, his skin is olive and glows, his wide mouth has a sensuous twist, his almond eyes are soulful, and his hair is glossy and long. In his rural Tibetan way he's a readymade rock star. He will be tamed and commodified before the end, though we're spared the details, just shown the video disc album he gets made and some quick clips of him performing.

My hopes ran high when I saw that Jia Zhangke was a co-producer of this film, whose first-time director is known already as a sound and musical composition man. Marko Stojiljković of Asian Movie Pulse says? he's "one of the most influential score composers and sound guys (handling everything, from design, via recording, to mixing) of the Tibetan cinema scene." So the tech side, both heard and shown, is authentic as can be. Music and sound design throughout by Dukar Tserang, of course. The drama side seems a little harder for him to keep going.

The thought that this rural Chinese setting might evoke the unpredictable complexity and cultural strangeness of Jia's early films was like a shot of adrenalin. But that doesn't happen. Tserang isn't as adventurous or gifted a director, the "star is born" theme is too hackneyed, and the milieu is mostly so rural (or invented and detached from the available reality) that its cultural content stays relatively thin.

Young Ngagwng doesn't conquer the world when he comes in from the bled, of course. He enters a little song contest and wins no prizes. It teaches him he's not the star he thinks he is and he learns he needs to get a record out before the public will pay attention to him. He meets a beautiful young woman singer who likes him, and they connect. Back home, he curses the big amulet he wears around his neck from his father, thinking it's lost its power. But the old picture inside it resembles the girl, and he starts to think she is the incarnation of what he calls Loyiter: Saraswati, the goddess of song and music. His father, to whom he is close and who encourages him, persuades him to keep the amulet. Good thing: it's an essential part of the "look."

Damtin Tserang never stops looking good, but he hasn't much to do in the rest of the film but be deflated and remain determined, and sometimes combative, whether against highway bandits or commercial studio nitwits, till finally he gets a studio gig and the poster and album out there. As a presence Tseramg can be a little zoned out-seeming, and the action doesn't necessarily pop when he's onscreen, nor the movie fully command its 93-minute run-time - short though, by the standards of this year's NYAFF roster, that may be. At one point the car Ngagwng is in out on the mountainous plain crashes and rolls down a hill; he soon recovers. The girl reappears; a pal (Pema Jyad) does too. His father he stays with by cell phone keeps supporting him - but he can never see him again.

When Ngawang gets to Xining to make his record, the big town of the Tibetan plateau (whose skyline we repeatedly gaze upon), he has raised money helped by friends. The traditional story line falters here: the album gets made; there are some hitches; so what? It's as if the first few sequences were as far as director Tserang had the filming planned, and inspiration faltered a bit. Lovely milieu and cast here, true details of the Tibetan music biz, but the structure gets in the way.

(Not sure where this narrative fits into the "free Tibet" story; but the protagonist sacrifices his native folk flavor to become a marketable, video-delivered pop singer, for sure.).

A Song for You 他与罗耶戴尔, 93 mins., debuted at Pingyao (the fest co-created by Jia Zhangke in 2017), Oct. 2020, also shown at Osaka Mar. 2021, at Rotterdam Jun. 2021 (internet). Shown Aug. 14, 2021 at the NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22), screened as part of that event for this review.

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