Mystical journeys of spiritual discovery are set against the spectacular, evocative landscape of the remote kingdom of Bhutan in TRAVELLERS & MAGICIANS Young government official Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) dreams of escaping to America while stuck in a ravishingly beautiful but isolated village. But when he misses his bus to the city (and an awaiting visa), Dondup is forced to hitchhike with an elderly apple seller, a sage young monk, an old man, and his beautiful daughter (Sonam Lhamo). Along the way, the mischievous monk tells Dondup a story of another young man who sought a land far away: a tale of lust, jealousy and murder that holds up a mirror to the restless Dondup and his blossoming attraction to the innocent young woman. Directed by Khyentse Norbu (AKA Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, one of Himalayan Buddhisms most revered lamas who made his feature directing debut with the monks-who-soccer sleeper THE CUP), this critical and box-office hit magnificently intertwines twin love stories for an enchanting, unforgettable film that is filled with heart, hope and humor.
It would be churlish, to say the least, to find fault with a movie written and directed by a revered Buddhist lama who's recognized as the reincarnation of a great Tibetan master. Fortunately, Kyentse Norbu's Travellers and Magicians is a lovely film that's easy to like. Norbu, who is actually from Bhutan, made a splash with his first effort, 1999's The Cup. Travellers and Magicians has a generally similar theme (the sometimes humorous, sometimes discomfiting collision of traditional and modern values and cultures), but a rather different story. This one concerns Dondup (Tsewang Dandup), a young government official who feels trapped in his Bhutanese village and yearns to answer the siren call of America, a place that represents Shangri-La for people who already live in Shangri-La (author James Hilton was said to have used Bhutan as a model for that utopian land in his novel Lost Horizon). After missing his bus to Thimphu, the nearest bigger town, Dondup falls in with a group of other travelers, including a lovely young woman and very garrulous monk. As they walk and hitchhike through the breathtaking Himalayan landscape, the monk spins a haunting tale that, though laced with adultery and murder, still has obvious parallels to Dondup's. The pace of the film is leisurely, clearly a reflection of Bhutanese life. The story is simple, the message--an "is the grass really greener?" fable--not especially subtle, the ending predictable. What's more, the actors, perhaps appropriately, are non-professionals. But those things somehow add to the pleasure of the film instead of detracting from it, and the direction, editing, and cinematography (especially the almost sepia-toned look of the monk's story sequences) are first-rate by any standards. Travellers and Magicians, with extras that include a "making of" featurette and behind-the-scenes location footage, is a keeper. --Sam Graham