Whether it was because of a rare chance to hear the voice of Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo, or to see a film that has been promoted and supported by celebrities like Sharon Stone, Richard Gere and his Holiness, the Dalai Lama himself, the small yet well-appointed theater at National Geographic was sold out days in advance of the US Premiere of Milarepa. Certainly, the globe-trekking efforts of the Dalai Lama have brought Tibetan Buddhism to popular attention, but the appeal of this film is transcendent, its theme universal.
Yungchen Lhamo personally requested the opportunity to introduce the film both in Los Angeles—where the National Geographic Society’s All Roads Film Festival kicked off—and at the headquarters in Washington, DC. Although she acknowledged that many people wouldn’t be able to understand her lyrics, the resonance of her voice touched places in the heart that words could not. As her voice emanated from a dimly lit room backstage, the petite songstress emerged. She danced gently with her hands, and spoke in hushed tones about the need for compassion, blessings and the opportunity to “offer our voices to the highest.” Dedicating each of her songs to the Dalai Lama, her final lamentation, a tribute to the memory of 9/11, was an apt segue into the film serenely beautiful, haunting and focused on the dark years of Tibetan Buddhism’s greatest mystic, Milarepa.
Filmed in India’s remotely majestic and often hostile Spiti Valley situated just across the border from Tibet, the story begins with the birth of Milarepa as Thopaga, son of a wealthy man whose life came to a sudden end. Placing his family in the care of his brother and sister, Mila endows his fortune to his eldest son, with instructions for the treasures to be turned over when Thopaga and his intended, Zesay, wed. But things go wrong from the beginning the greedy brother and sister take the treasures for themselves, plunging Thopaga, brother Peta and mother Kargyen into poverty and suffering. The family is forced to scratch out a living, literally from the dirt. The last straw comes when Kargyen throws a rice wine party to announce the impending marriage of Thopaga and Zesay, only to have the evil brother and sister refuse to turn over the wealth and accuse the family of being ingrates. The villagers, like sheep, fall into line with the now wealthy brother. Kargyen reluctantly sells her last piece of land, a practically barren field for which she receives a pittance, mainly because the purchaser had great respect for Mila. Consumed with bitterness, Kargyen gives the money to Thopaga to learn the art of sorcery in order to take revenge on her brother and sister-in-law, vowing she will kill herself if he doesn’t give them their just desserts. Thopaga embarks on his epic journey to find the great master Yungton Trogyel, who will teach him the art of sorcery, and when that master’s magic is not enough, he seeks out the supreme purveyor of black magic, Yungton Gyatso. Thopaga returns to exact revenge on his village, bringing cataclysm on all who live there, not only the unjust. Remorseful and tormented, Thopaga realizes the impact of his vengeance.
This is where the epic film leaves off, to be continued in Milarepa Part II. While the subject of a little known Buddhist mystic seems like a long shot for a popular film, the producers have taken the route of many independent films, releasing the DVD version of the film, with extras including teachings by the Dalai Lama, in November. Apart from its stunning cinematography—stark, brilliant and almost surreal against the towering Himalayas—by director of photography Paul Warren, and the ethereal sound track by Joel Diamond, one of the most amazing aspects of the film is that none of the actors and actresses is professionally trained. Rather, they are members of the monasteries headed by filmmaker Neten Chokling Rinpoche, considered to be the fourth reincarnatio