Director Kbyentse Norbu knows a lot about Tibetan Buddhism, he was even consulted by Bernando Bertolucci when he was making the film ‘Little Buddha’ (1993). In 1999 he released his debut ‘The Cup’, a film about – yes! – Buddhists playing football. This debut was the first film ever from Bhutan, a country between China and India, in the Himalayas.
‘Travelers and Magicians’ also takes place in Bhutan, which is reflected in beautiful landscapes of snow-covered mountains, many trees, Buddhist monks in their colorful robes and old-fashioned villages, where a post office is run by one man and morse code is worked. Main character Dondup, a government official, does not see the charm of the rustic environment in which he finds himself. He finds his fellow villagers a bunch of morons with their rituals and he is annoyed by the slow way of life in Bhutan. Dondup has sneakers and an I love NY t-shirt. His room is full of posters, he smokes cigarettes and he listens to pop music fanatically. Dondup thinks it is a dead place in his village and so wants to leave, to America, the land of unprecedented possibilities and beautiful girls. What you would expect as follows is a film about this Dondup in America, but it is not that easy to leave Bhutan. For most of the film, Dondup tries to get away from his village, with painfully slow elevators and annoying fellow travelers. However, this is a movie with a moral, and who better to have that moral than from a Tibetan monk. That Tibetan monk is Dondup’s most annoying fellow traveler. This monk wants to convince Dondup that he must be satisfied with what he has and therefore comes up with the story about a farmer who had two sons. The eldest son Tashi is allowed to go to school, while he only dreams about girls and distant lands and the youngest son is much smarter. The youngest son brews a strange drink for his brother and suddenly Tashi gets into a kind of drug intoxication, in which he gets lost and ends up with an old man and his beautiful young wife Deki. Tashi becomes entangled in a romance that he can (and wants) to flee from. The monk’s story parallels Dondup’s situation: while hitchhiking, he also meets a beautiful young girl who weakens his desire to go to America. The monk continues with wisdom as hope causes sorrow and what we dreamed of yesterday we fear today.
It is a reasonable story, that of ‘Travelers and Magicians’, which is told in a calm way. However, one would expect some more weird and exciting situations from a travelogue, there is relatively little story in ‘Travelers and Magicians’. The images are occasionally very beautiful, as in the scene where Tashi spies on Deki while she is bathing. But what bothers are the colors, which are intentionally made faded in the story of Tashi and Deki. For example, the colors of Tashis drug whirl are totally over-the-top distorted in a photoshop-like way, which looks very cheap. In addition, the monk’s moralistic talk is too obvious, he could have left it with the narration of Tashi and Deki, without always imposing his opinion on Dondup so clearly.