Director Pema Tseden has passed, but a ‘new wave of Tibetan film’ is rising
Published: May 09, 2023 10:37 PM
Chinese director Pema Tseden Photo: VCG

Chinese director Pema Tseden Photo: VCG

The sudden death of venerable ethnic Tibetan director, screenwriter and writer Pema Tseden at the age of 54 on Monday stunned the entire Chinese film industry, triggering a discussion of the "new Tibetan wave" that he pioneered. 

"It is a pity he has left, as we have not yet completed many of the plans we had agreed upon," Long Rinchen, a vice chairman of Qinghai Writers' ­Association, who has known Pema Tseden since they were teens, told the Global Times on Monday.

Sonthar Gyal, another Tibetan director, told the Global Times on Monday that Pema Tseden guided him to make film making a career and that the director's sudden passing hit him hard. 

The director's passing was indeed abrupt. Just the day before, Pema Tseden posted a message in his WeChat moments, congratulating young Tibetan director Gegyal Jena for winning an award at the Indian International Short Film Festival with his film Gift.

Promotional material for Pema Tseden's <em>Tharlo</em> Photo: Courtesy of Maoyan

Promotional material for Pema Tseden's Tharlo Photo: Courtesy of Maoyan

'Epoch-making' achievements

"Pema Tseden is so far the only Tibetan who was good at writing literature and making films. His death is a big loss not only for Tibetan film but world film," Keke Awangdanzeng, a vice chairman of ­Xizang Film and Television ­Association and the late director's friend, told the Global Times.

He pointed out that an excellent ­writer may not be competent as a director, and vice versa, but Pema Tseden was the exception. Pema Tseden was wise in the ways of how to convert literature into movies that appealed to global moviegoers. Meanwhile, he knew how to effectively convey ­Tibetan ­culture to the world on very low budgets.

"Pema Tseden's films allowed the world to understand this ethnic group in a new way. For us Tibetans, he was a pioneer of Tibetan language film and his achievements were epoch-making," Lhagon, an employee from the China Ethnic Language Translation Center, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Indeed, for a director, one's 50s is a golden period for production. Pema Tseden proved his talent in film making through his works and the awards he has earned.

His films Tharlo ,Jinpa and Balloon set in Tibetan areas were nominated for the Horizons section of the Venice International Film Festival. Jinpa won the Screenplay Award at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, while Balloon won Best Film at Asia-Pacific Film Festival.

Beyond his personal remarkable achievements, Pema Tseden's greater contributions to Tibetan film and even the Chinese film industry are that he has inspired and guided a group of young Tibetans such as Jigme Trinley and Lhapal Gyal to embark on the road of film creation, setting off a "new Tibetan wave." 

Since 2010, Tibetan-themed films shot by Tibetan filmmakers have gradually grown in terms of quantity, content and production skills. Featuring Tibetans ­speaking their mother tongue as they go about daily life in Southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, these films better represent the lifestyle and way of thinking of Tibetans.

Long ­Rinchen told the Global Times that compared with their elders, most of this new generation of Tibetan filmmakers have undergone traditional film making education, but they also try to narrate their stories about Xizang by using their own film language, including adding more genres and elements into their works. This can be seen in the works of Pema Tseden's son Jigme Trinley. 

In 2021, Jigme Trinley's One and Four premiered at the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival. The film combines elements from multiple genres, including crime and suspense. It not only exudes the mysterious atmosphere of Tibetan culture in its tone, but also shows a mature and precise type of film temperament.

Promotional material for Pema Tseden's <em>Balloon</em> Photo: Courtesy of Maoyan

Promotional material for Pema Tseden's Balloon Photo: Courtesy of Maoyan

A strong practitioner 

According to Keke Awangdan, Pema Tseden was a strong practitioner of Tibetan cultural consciousness and self-confidence. He was devoted to telling Tibetan stories to the world in his native language. Though Pema Tseden has left us, his attitude toward film making will continue to influence more young filmmakers who might create different styles of Tibetan films along with the rapid development of the Chinese film industry.

For Tibetan filmmakers represented by Pema Tseden, identity has ­given them a more striking label, but Pema Tseden once told the Global Times in a previous ­interview that directors should not film movies about Chinese ethnic minorities in an attempt to earn awards. He said "a good film is a film that is pure," and "a very good story can break through language barriers no matter where you are from."

Promotional material for Pema Tseden's <em>Jinpa</em> Photo: Courtesy of Maoyan

Promotional material for Pema Tseden's Jinpa Photo: Courtesy of Maoyan