TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Tibetan director Pema Tseden has garnered considerable renown over the last few years. His two bigger films, 2018’s Jinpa and 2019’s Balloon, both sleeper darlings on the international film festival circuit, helped chronicle his rise as a surrealist cinematic giant. All the more heartbreaking, then, that Tseden passed away only a few weeks after completing his penultimate film, Snow Leopard.
In a tribute to Tseden’s now-signature style, Snow Leopard is singular in its quietness. Even more catholic in its tastes than the director’s other works, the film encompasses everything from the magical to the mysterious, the political to the divine. And though it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his previous films, Snow Leopard is still a beautifully conceived and technically luminous work.
Purportedly inspired by a real-life occurrence, Snow Leopard revolves around a single farmer’s contention with a wild snow leopard. During the night, the leopard had snuck into the farmer’s sheep pen, killing nine expensive rams. Unwilling to release the animal without the recompense of money or vengeance, the farmer quarrels with a local monk, who insists that the leopard is a divine messenger and must be released.
“…revolves around a single farmer’s contention with a wild snow leopard.”
Snow Leopard’s contemplative soul is essentially translated through its cinematography. Shot completely on the Tibetan Plateau, the story is told in still, panoramic frames, which allow the viewer to drink in the otherworldly landscapes truly. As is his expertise, Tseden creates a pristine and palpable setting through the use of many long shots. Snow Leopard drifts elegantly from scene to scene, allowing for a deep tranquility that highlights the film’s themes as well as its slice-of-life deportment.
Moreover, the actors all deliver sublimely familiar performances. Each character deals with small issues that are never earth-shattering but are perfectly regular. This provides a grounded foundation for the theatre-like narrative context on which the characters stand. In this vein, it is fair to say that very little happens in the film, yet Snow Leopard is never boring. It is an astutely paced and transportive experience.
Where Snow Leopard falters, however, is in the thematic significance of the leopard itself. Much is made of whether the animal is a vicious brute or an agent of the cosmos, making it a character unto itself. But it is here that Tseden’s ambiguous style misses the mark. Snow Leopard is crying out for some greater revelation, or even greater suggestion, regarding the leopard’s place in the world. The only decree offered is the somewhat glib notion that man and beast must learn to live together.
And yet, considering the film as a whole, this failing gives only partial pause. Overall, Snow Leopard is a work of intricate craftsmanship. It is both sumptuously empty and grand every day. But, above all, there is a cinematic divinity to Snow Leopard that prefers to showcase rather than embellish. As such, it is Tseden’s most tangibly realist work—and it is a testament to a filmmaker who, like the snow leopard, is here one day to be discussed and gone the next.
Snow Leopard screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
"…...is Tseden’s most tangibly realist work."