Tibet from the Inside: The Silent Holy Stones By Kong Rithdee

in 30th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Kong Rithdee

Films about Tibet tend to get hung up over the region’s soaring landscape, while its monastic mysticism is looked upon with eyes glazed with doleful reverence (think Kundun or Milarepa). Thus the prime reason The Silent Holy Stones (Lhing vjags kyi ma ni rdo vbum) feels refreshing is because it seems unconcerned with the Shangri-la Effect, as the director, a true-blooded Tibetan named Wanma-caidan, gets past the conscious weight of Oriental exoticism to relate a human story that’s touching, comical and subtly political.

The Silent Holy Stones won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 30th Hong Kong International Film Festival, beating other worthy contenders such as A Short Film about the Indio Nacional from the Philippines and South Korea’s Host and Guest. Reputed to be the first film by a real Tibetan, The Silent Holy Stones observes the social ripples felt by a remote village as the stealthy force of modernity creeps in. When a novice monk returns home during the New Year holiday, the teenager gets hooked on a household novelty: a television set and a VCD player. As the whole village celebrates the New Year by staging a play based on the legend of Lord Buddha, the monk sneaks out from the outdoor theatre with his brother with the intention of watching the entire boxset of the Xi You Ji series (a popular TV series based on a Chinese novel about the Monkey King who escorts a Chinese priest to discover the Tripitaka in India). As is the case with all of us, the TV series proves addictive, and the young monk begs his father to bring the television and VCD player back to his monastery once the holiday is over.

Director Wanma-caidan is deft enough not to portray television simply as the representation of vile materialism; rather, The Silent Holy Stones speaks of the inevitability of modern encroachment on an ancient way of life, and suggests that the new generation of Tibetans will have to deal with a new set of social problems that are different from their parents. A passing jab at the Chinese “bad influence” on Tibet comes in a scene when the young monk slips into a tent, set up as a makeshift movie theatre, where a Hong Kong action flick complete with an erotic scene is being shown. “How could you show this thing to a monk?” he complains as he’s leaving the tent. What’s exceptional is the film’s ending, beautifully paced and effortlessly symbolic on the uncertainty of the young monk’s life — or perhaps of Tibetans as a whole.