Phörpa (The Cup)
Directed by Khyentse Norbu
Review by Matt Heffernan
Bhutan is a small kingdom of less than two million people nestled in the Himalayas. It's a country comprised mainly of farmers and Buddhist monks, and not until 1999 had they ever produced a single feature film. Khyentse Norbu is a monk, himself, but he certainly knows how to make a film. Even though he was recognized as the reincarnation of a Tibetan saint at age 7, he must have spent a good amount of time at the theatre. Being the first filmmaker from Bhutan, he also might have spent a previous life as Thomas Edison or a Lumière brother.
His film actually takes place in India (which borders most of Bhutan), where there is a Tibetan monastery in exile. Some of the monks are just adolescent boys, and in 1998 few of them were actually born in Tibet. Even for the oldest monks, their homeland is a fading memory. But, their interests also lie in the West, where the World Cup is being fought out. A resourceful young monk, Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), is a ravenous soccer fan who has pictures of his favorite players plastered above his humble bed. He and his friend Lodo (Neten Chokling) have been sneaking away from the monastery to watch the tournament in a little shack in the nearby village.
Eventually, they get caught by Geko (Orgyen Tobgyal), and they are punished with kitchen duty. Geko has to explain to the aging Abbot (Lama Chonjor) what the World Cup is and why people play soccer in order to explain the boys' mischievous behavior. The boys are also forbidden from leaving the monastery at night, so Orgyen proposes an idea to Geko and the Abbot: if he and his friends raise the money, and they promise to study harder and behave better, then they are allowed to rent a television and satellite dish to watch the final match at the monastery.
Unlike Scorsese's Kundun, which was an outsider's look at Tibetan monks, The Cup is an intimate portrait of how this ancient order exists in the modern world. And even though it looks like an art film at first glance, it is really an entertaining family comedy. The heart of the film lies with Lodro and Tobgyal, who appear to play the same character before and after thirty years of studying Buddhism. The Orgyen character is played by Lodro (making his screen debut, along with the rest of the cast) as a Tibetan version of Dickens' Artful Dodger. Geko is a disciplinarian, but he is able to understand the children better than the elder monks.
Most of the film is pretty amusing, but it rarely goes for big laughs. When it does, the execution is somewhat awkward, but again, these are not trained comic actors. What they do bring to the film is an enthusiasm that keeps the simple story moving. If your children are into soccer, this would be the perfect opportunity to take them to their first foreign film. The language is pretty direct, and it should be easy enough for a child to read the subtitles.
In fact, it's rather comforting to see that Bhutan's first film is a G-rated family affair. Surprisingly, it has gotten a lot of recognition at international film festivals among saucy French offerings and introspective German pieces. With any luck, they'll come up with another film sometime this century. For now, they can be called the country with the most consistent film industry.
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan