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MOVIE REVIEW

Revenge tale turns spiritual

Neten Chokling's film of an 11th century mystic, 'Milarepa' is steeped in romanticism.

September 14, 2007|John Anderson | Special to The Times

It's impossible to know whether Milarepa, the real-life, 11th century mystic at the center of director Neten Chokling's "Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint," ever met the director -- Chokling has been recognized by some as the reincarnation of Tibetan yogi Chokgyur Lingpa, and his past lives allegedly go back centuries. What's usually a pretty sure thing, though, is that when an acolyte of any stripe makes a movie about his beliefs and religion, the results are safe as yak milk. Not so here.

The story of Milarepa is one of persecution, revenge and spiritual redemption, fairly standard in the inspirational biopic but hardly what we associate with Tibetan Buddhism. And while the tale is told in broad-stroke acting and a soberly respectful script, the elements of the case are pure romanticism.

Born into a well-to-do merchant family, to a father who was a leader of his people, the boy who would become the revered writer Milarepa was suddenly thrust into poverty via envy, lies and deceit. His father, Mila (Tenpa Choephel), knowing death is near, entrusts his fortune and his family to his brother Gyaltsen (Gonpo) and Gyaltsen's wife, Peydon (Tsamchoe), who promise to fulfill Mila's wish to give the fortune back to Milarepa upon his marriage. Mila apparently didn't know them very well: The uncle and aunt subject Milarepa and his mother, Kargyen (Kelsang Chukie Tethtong), to a kind of slavery and near-starvation. When Milarepa comes of age and his mother throws a party to announce it is time for him to get his fortune, she is told there is none. The villagers show her no support. She plots her revenge.

Her son will study with the master sorcerer Yongten Trogyel (Orgyen Tobgyal) and return to smite his oppressors. And so Milarepa sets out to find his future master, with the blackest of intentions.

Director Chokling, a rinpoche who has had experience in filmmaking via his monastery's involvement with Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha" and then as an actor in Khyentse Norbu's "The Cup," shot his movie in the Spiti Valley, a wind-swept spot on the Indian-Tibetan border, and makes tremendous use of landscapes, the backdrop of the Himalayas and the rawness of the terrain. All suggest a suspension of time and endow the film with an appropriately mythic quality, embellished by Chokling's deft handling of the film's magical-realist aspects, and its most violent episode: Milarepa will bring on an avalanche that kills his uncle and his supporters. But he finds revenge less than sweet and returns to his master to learn a new way.

Jamyang Lodro brings to the role of Milarepa the seriousness of a true seeker and callow youth. He, too is a Tibetan monk, although like many of his peers, he doesn't live in the land of his culture, which is being not-so-slowly strangled by China. It's doubtful "Milarepa" will be opening in Beijing any time soon; all the more reason it deserves a look.

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MPAA rating: PG for some violence/disturbing images and thematic elements. In Tibetan with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223; Regency South Coast Village 3, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 557-5701.

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