Films about the plight of the Tibetan people living under – or escaping – Chinese oppression are far and few between. One of the many things that makes Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s drama The Sweet Requiem so special and refreshing is that it doesn’t resort to easy political speechifying. The filmmakers deliver a taut, lyrical story that leaves a shadow, that of sadness in which a tiny spark of hope determinedly lingers.
The film opens with a stunning, despondent image of a family struggling to make their way through knee-deep Himalayan snow. A little girl sits on the back of a man, wearing large sunglasses on her frost-bitten face. A shot echoes through the placid white emptiness, jarring us into the present: we’re introduced to a grown-up Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker), who now lives in a Tibetan refugee settlement in North Delhi. She attempts to lead a somewhat-normal life – threading eyebrows for a living, attending dance aerobics classes – yet memories of escaping Tibet, and of her mother and sister, haunt her.
“…she comes face-to-face with the man who deserted her and her family during the arduous mountain trek.”
That is until she comes face-to-face with the man who deserted her and her family during the arduous mountain trek. She recognizes Gompo (Jampa Kalsang Tamang) as soon as he moves into her colony. Traumatized, all the past emotions brimming to the surface, Dolkar begins to follow him. In the meantime, intense flashbacks – which compose about 1/3 of the film – reveal Dolkar’s treacherous Himalayan journey: her parting with her mother, getting stranded with her father and then being led by the reluctant Gompo, a guide from Nepal.
The film flows fluidly, unfolding like a slow-burn thriller, its seemingly-disparate storylines moving in tandem with each other. The filmmakers clearly understand the ebb-and-flow of a feature and how to interweave plots. That said, the flashbacks, shot on location at high altitudes, form the meat of the film, by turns grueling and heartbreaking. If there’s a flaw is that they overshadow the at-times-middling current-day story (which is unusual in of itself: normally, it’s the other way around).
“…the flashbacks, shot on location at high altitudes, form the meat of the film, by turns grueling and heartbreaking.”
Tenzin Dolker turns in a beautifully restrained performance. Whether she sings a touching Hindi song on her birthday or breaks up crying to her friend during a tender moment, the subtle evolution of her character is all there, on her porcelain features. Jampa Kalsang Tamang is equally charismatic, revealing more and more sides to his at-first-stoic character. Yes, he ruthlessly leaves the elderly behind in a searing sequence, yet in the present, faced with an incarcerated wife back in Tibet, he’s a shell of a man, who may have had reasons to do what he did.
From the dimly-lit highways of North Delhi to the majesty of the Himalayas, cinematographer David McFarland captures atmospheric, grand shots that demand to be seen on as wide a screen as possible. A reminder of how far-reaching a simple act of human kindness can be, and not to take anything at face value, The Sweet Requiem is also a call to action, a statement on the Chinese invasion of Tibet (whose desperate citizens resort to self-immolation), and by extension, a representation of all the lost souls exiled from their land. Let’s hope that, like the poor souls it depicts, it gets an opportunity to enjoy a little bit of success. Seek it out.
The Sweet Requiem (2019) Directed by Ritu Sarin and Tenzig Sonam. Written by Tenzig Sonam. Starring Tenzin Dolker, Jampa Kalsang Tamang, Tashi Choedon, Nyima Dhondup, Tenzin Dechen, Tsetun Dolma, Shavo Dorjee.
8 out of 10