Chinese mainland filmmaker takes a soulful look at Tibetan pilgrimages with ‘Paths of the Soul’

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/29 18:28:40

Promotional material for Paths of the Soul Photo: Courtesy of Lantern Film Ltd.

Promotional material for Paths of the Soul Photo: Courtesy of Lantern Film Ltd.

Going from a little-known film to a trending topic on social media, Paths of the Soul, a Chinese film about a group of Tibetans heading out on a pilgrimage, looks like it is about to see a turnaround similar to that of Indian sports film Dangal.

On its ninth day in theaters on Wednesday, Chinese mainland director Zhang Yang's Paths of the Soul finally climbed to the No.3 spot at the daily box office with a single day take of 6.21 million yuan ($915,000) earned with a screen share of just 6.0 percent. The No.1 spot that day went to Transformers: The Last Knight, which dominated cinemas with a 58.7 percent screen share and a single day take of 59.45 million yuan, while the No.2 spot went to Hong Kong comedy 77 Heartbreaks with 6.22 million yuan. As of Thursday, Paths of the Soul has earned a total of 34 million yuan over its nine-day run, an impressive amount for an art film. 

Following the long journey of a dozen Tibetans as they undertake a bowing pilgrimage from the small county of Markam in Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region to the regional capital of Lhasa and then further on to Kang Rinpoche, one of the major holy mountains in Tibetan Buddhism also known as Mount Kailash, Paths of the Soul has ignited discussion of life and religious belief on Chinese social media platforms.

"The film left me with two epiphanies: First, my life so far has been pretty easy. Second, one must have belief to overcome difficulties," wrote netizen Weiwei on Sina Weibo.

Shot in the style of a documentary, Zhang used non-professional actors that he handpicked for the film, leading to a blend of scripted fiction and spontaneous reality.

It is this method of depicting the group's journey that has received the most criticism from moviegoers as some feel that a documentary format is not appropriate for a fictional story.

In his review of the film, netizen Yuzhai Zhishen posted on Sina Weibo that "an imaginary pilgrimage does not have the power to move people. A faked documentary lacks the true and powerful feelings that a real documentary would have."

On Sunday, Zhang sat down with the Global Times to discuss criticism of the film and talk about how it came to be.

Reality and fiction

In a press release for the film, Zhang explained that he already had a picture in mind of what he wanted to present on screen: First an old man in his 70s or 80s, who possible could die during the journey; a pregnant woman who would end up delivering her baby on the way; a butcher looking to atone for taking so many lives; and a child of about 7 or 8 who could add some interesting elements and uncertainty to the journey. He also wanted a mature and sober middle-aged man in his 50s who could act as the group's leader.

Having these characters in mind, Zhang and his film crew traveled through South China's Yunnan Province and Southwest China's Sichuan Province and Tibet until he met Tsring Chodron, a young pregnant woman whose father-in-law's uncle had longed to go on a bowing pilgrimage his entire life. Soon after he found other local people who fit the bill for the characters he wanted to portray in his film.  

"I think, on the contrary, this film presents another type of reality, which is what I wanted," Zhang said responding to the criticisms that a fictional pilgrimage should not have been filmed in a documentary style. He defended his decision by pointing out that even documentaries end up being edited to make a coherent story and that, in his opinion, those who are filmed are more or less performing in front of the camera.

"My method is to rely on a documentary format to restore the truth. From my point of view, you can say that a director's purpose is to present an artistic reality."

Zhang explained that while the overall story was scripted, the details that occurred along the way were not fake.

"Some of the scenes were based on things that had taken place on other pilgrimages. We just put them together and presented these situations with one group."

Path of a director

One of China's so-called Sixth Generation of directors - directors whose careers began in the 1990s and 2000s - Zhang earned a name for himself overseas with works such as Shower (1999), Sunflower (2005) and Going Home (2007). However, his name today is often overshadowed in China by his peers such as Lu Chuan (City of Life and Death 2009) and Ning Hao (No Man's Land 2013). One possible reason for this is that the director was absent from the public eye during the early 2010s, a period of time when the Chinese mainland film industry was developing at an incredibly rapid pace. After releasing his comedy Full Circle in 2012, he didn't release any works in mainland theaters.

Now along with Paths of the Soul, the director has another Tibetan-themed film set to release in July: Soul on a String.

According to Zhang, his fascination with Tibet and its people got its start in a three-month-long backpacking trip through the region he took in 1991.

"Lost in thought as I sat in long-distant train coaches covered in dust, I kept asking myself, 'What is my dream?' 'Who am I?' and 'What kind of life do I want?' That journey changed my entire life," Zhang said.

Speaking about the low screen share of less than 1 percent his film received when it first debuted, Zhang said that he has not given it too much thought.

"I knew that even if the film lost money, I would still continue doing what I love and not bend to pressure to do commercial films. This is my personal principle."

Fatigued from weeks promoting the film and interviews, Zhang explained that he was getting ready to head back into the shadows, "I am not a person who talks much. The film is there and it speaks for itself."

Huang Jiangrui contributed to this story

Newspaper headline: Long journey

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