Hamlet in Tibet: Hu’s Prince of the Himalayas

Promotional still from Prince of the Himalayas

Promotional still from Prince of the Himalayas, showing Purba Rgyal who plays Prince Lhamoklodan, the Hamlet of the film.

Last night the Rubin Museum of Art had a one-time showing of Sherwood Hu’s Prince of the Himalayas, one of the few theatrical showings of the film since it first premiered in the United States a little more than a year ago, at, of course, the Rubin Museum of Art. The Rubin Museum is a stunningly beautiful showcase for art of Tibet and surrounding areas, which has a very enlightened programming policy. But that is for another time. Sherwood Hu attended this showing.

The movie has received critical acclaim wherever it’s been shown, and, according to Hu, created such demand in China that many more prints than originally planned were rushed into production. In the years since it was released in 2006 it has had almost no showings in the United States. The Internet Movie Database says that it has grossed only $9,178 as of January 2012. The only explanation is that Hu’s Entertainment (the production company) must have no relations with any US distributors.

Sonamdolgar, who plays Odsaluyang, the Tibetan version of Ophelia.

Sonamdolgar, who plays Odsaluyang, the Tibetan version of Ophelia.

Notwithstanding its lack of success in the United States (or perhaps explaining it), it’s easy to see why the film would appeal to audiences who are not addicted to automobile pile ups and exploding buildings. The movie was filmed entirely in Tibet, and the gorgeous scenery is shown to stunning effect by wide-angle cinematography as well as cleverly choreographed long crane shots. It takes no effort to make Himalayan scenery inspiring, and the camera work does not draw attention to itself. The film is also filled with carefully framed face shots of the various members of the cast, all Tibetan, most of whom are beautiful (some stunningly) and the rest at least ruggedly handsome.

The Tibetan Gertrude and Claudius (played by Zomskyid and Dobrgyal).

The Tibetan Gertrude and Claudius (played by Zomskyid and Dobrgyal).

The action takes place in medieval Tibet, before the advent of Buddhism, and therefore the rituals are keyed to the Bon religion. Hu said that the setting was suggested to him by a living Buddha (tulku) with whom he discussed the project while still in incipient stages. The setting allows for two other features that are immediately captivating. First, the music (composed by Xuntian He), which is almost continuous through the film, is performed almost exclusively on percussion with solo flute and clarinet. The low (and stifled) pounding of the large (skin-covered ?) drums provides a riveting propulsive depth framing the action. Second, the costumes and sets (of villages, the palace and places of ritual) are staggering in their exotic strangeness. The statuary, the sacred places (the monumental stones, mountains and rivers) and building structures are foreign, but their spiritual significance is immediately intuited. The costumes suggest people who were both practical and spiritual: their religion partaking of and transcending nature. The rituals, both celebratory (as in the marriage feast) and grief-filled (as in the scene of Odsaluyang’s funeral) are visually sumptuous and moving in their outward representation of things mystical. The female dancers at the marriage feast are hypnotic.

It is, however, the story that remains. It is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, not only transported to a different place and time, but also told for almost the opposite purpose. The play was about revenge (and dynastic succession, but that part is neither here nor there). Here Hu says the film is about forgiveness. But even Hu’s synopsis is not entirely complete, because the forgiveness is not so much for what happened in the Shakespeare play, but rather for actions based on the belief that those things happened. Yet by and large those beliefs are mistaken. The film’s action may take place before Buddhism, but still, in this movie if not everything, at least the important things, are all an illusion. 

In the vast spaces of the Himalayas under the overwhelming presence of the mountains, ritual is more like a plea than a comfort.

In the vast spaces of the Himalayas under the overwhelming presence of the mountains, ritual is more like a plea than a comfort.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot changes because seeing the changes from Shakespeare’s version and watching how they play out (and often return to the action of the original play) is a great part of the illumination that the film aims for. I will hint at one major feature that allows for the plot changes: Hamlet’s dead and now spectral father is not the innocent victim crying out for just vengeance. In Shakespeare, the justice of revenge is taken as given. Here it is shown to be altogether wrong. The shaman (played by Luo Sang Da Wa) repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to stop Prince Lhamoklodan (the Hamlet figure played by Purba Rgyal) from carrying through his plan to slay his uncle (and now step-father). She explains how vengeance will lead to massacre, but Lhamoklodan is beyond persuasion at this point (whose resolve is very much unlike the Elizabethan Hamlet). When the ghost father sees that the Shaman has altered (somewhat) the course he intended, he cries out, “What is this new poison?” and she replies, “Love.” Incidentally, the figure of the shaman is cleverly added to the story, and it is she who produces the “play” which is designed to catch the conscience of the king.

Maternal and filial love and mutual misunderstanding.

Maternal and filial love and mutual misunderstanding.

What is daring about the retelling is that it uses almost none of the language of Shakespeare. And since the theme and characterizations are different, you might conclude that there is nothing left of Shakespeare. (Those fans of Elizabethan theatrical battles and sword fights will be happy to know that they remain, and Hu adds to them.) But Shakespeare is still the overpowering presence to the viewer, if at least as the counterweight. In Shakespeare, the intellectual action is philosophical, even when Hamlet is sure that there is more in heaven and earth that dreamed of in philosophy. Hamlet meets his existential crisis with philosophy, and the encounter drives him mad. Hu portrays the existential crisis in terms of mythology and mythological symbols. And if we are players in a universe that is governed by eternal mythological tropes, we are governed by obligations. The shaman says our obligation is love, but she means it in an entirely different way than the characters understand it. The characters divide love into categories: filial, maternal, paternal, matrimonial, sensual and they miss the point because all these categories conflict. And when one category of love is ended, unjustly, then the only response these characters (and we too) can have is hatred and desire for revenge.

Death and birth in one mythological trope. We all fulfill our role, and it goes on.

Death and birth in one mythological trope. We all fulfill our roles, and it goes on.

It is the unjust end of filial love that drive both Hamlet and Ophelia in this film mad. The loss of the object of their love creates in each of them hatred for the cause of the loss and then for everything else. Shakespeare’s Hamlet tries to use rationality to battle his alienation from everything, Prince Lhamoklodan tries to escape back to his studies in Persia but learns on the way that there can be no escape. In both cases he has to decide if he can fight the “sea of troubles,” and in both cases he decides to try. In both cases he loses, as he must. Ophelia in both treatments dies, but in Hu’s her death is complicated by other roles she has and can’t fulfill because of her alienation. When she does die, it’s while giving birth (she only understands the pain and the necessity for cutting the cord) in a scene suffused with mythological symbolism.

Hu said that the entire film was completed in less than 80 days. Two months were spent with the cast, living together, exercising and role-playing. The shooting took less than a month. The characters’ reactions to each other show how they have internalized the story and their personalities. Even the set shots and the facial close-ups reveal nuances that we only come to understand as we see how the story differs from what we expected. In this regard, Dobrgyal, who plays Claudius (Kulo-ngam in the film) is particularly noteworthy, because he is the character around whom all plotting revolves and the one whose motives are the most surprising. It would be interesting to view the film again, with the knowledge one obtains from the first viewing. When that will be, however, is a sad question. There doesn’t seem to be another showing scheduled in the United States (at least none in New York) although it does appear to be available on Netflix. The Rubin Museum announced before the showing that the film has been deposited in its permanent collection; I have no idea whether that allows anyone to see it, however.

It is unfortunate that the editing does not come up to the same standards as the acting and cinematography. There are jumps that are a bit unsettling to someone accustomed to the thing that Hollywood has down pat (for all its other shortcomings). It is a flaw that is particularly noticeable given the stately bearing of the characters and the deliberate pace of the tragedy. The very ending (which gives the film an oddly non-Shakespearian uplift) is also somewhat flat. It doesn’t seem to resolve anything or explain the need for the tragedies we’ve witnessed. If it is designed to assure us that things go on despite what we do, it’s probably unnecessary (or perhaps even a worse tragedy) and seems inconsistent with what we have seen. Or maybe it is nothing more than opportunities for others to disregard the shaman’s message. Perhaps Shakespeare here really had the best idea: when you have that many bodies on stages, there’s really nothing more to say.

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