Ala Changso (China, 2018)

It took me three days to finish Ala Changso, just because I could not stop pulling back the progress bar and seeing every long hand-hold take again and again so as to figured out and re-experienced the exquisite slowness in Sonthar Gyal’s camera movements. This is a work influenced by the trend of “Tibetan New Wave Cinema”. It depicts a tragic story in a normal Tibetan family. A Tibetan woman, Dorma (Nyima Sungsung), is notified that, sooner or later, the advanced cancer in her brain will cause death. So, in the last chapter of her life, she decides to calmly make some preparation and be acceptable to death. She wants achieve one of her long-time willingness: taking a long-distance pilgrimage to Lhasa, by kowtowing step-by-step. She conceals her upcoming death to her husband, Dorje (actor-singer Yungdrung Gyal), and the son with her dead ex-husband, Norbu (Sechok Gyal). Nevertheless, sickness does not allow her to finish the journey. Before death, she implores Dorje to replace her and continue the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Dorje witnesses the last moment of Dorma, when Dorma gives him a keepsake made by the ashes of her ex-husband. Dorje is in mourning, and begins to feel disappointed to Dorma because she remembers her dead ex-husband before death. However, Dorje still brings Norbu to continue to travel to Lhasa.

As an avant-garde Tibetan filmmakers, Gyal successfully conveys a heart-melting poetic narrative without imposing any utopian beautification to this plateau. Compared to Pema Tsedan’s relatively-pessimistic reflectiosn on the transformation of ethnicity, the core of Gyal’s creation is the expression of love, tolerance and ordinaries. He prefers to portay the changes of a person or a three-members family, with his camera much closer to ground.

Like in Gyal’s previous features The Sun Beaten Path (2011) and River (2015), a change in the dynamic between bloodless father and son leads to a truehearted reconciliation. Dorje used to treat Norbu perfunctorily, just because he is the Dorma, so Dorje has to care about Dorma‘s feelings There wasn’t any sincere emotion between Norbu and Dorje, until Dorman’s death traigers a change. There are two clear reasons for Dorje to become as the guardian of Norbu – the promise made to his wife and his compassion for the orphan. But, gradually, he takes on the kindness and responsibility of a father. Gyal just lets the change happen naturally and slightly. For example, when Dorje is still trapped by endless sadness, Norbu puts on his mother’s leather apron and armguards, goes back to the place where Dorma fell down, and continues to kowtow. Dorje finds him in a construction site, while Norbu’s is exhausted with scracthes on his foot. Dorje binds up his foot and cries. After that, Dorje replaces Norbu, and recommends the child to walk in front of him, along with the baby donkey they pick up on the way. Dorje is moved by Norbu’s behaviour.

There is another long-take that also highlights their reconciliation. Dorje suddenly realises that the donkey is standing near the brink of the road, while Norbu is missing. Dorje shouts Norbu’s name and jogs down from the hillside. The camera follows Dorje, then stops near the pool. The images shows Norbu’s yellow ball drifting on the surface. Dorje jumps into the cold water without hesitation, swims to the ball, but after he closes to the pool center, the camera stops moving. Dorje turns back head, and the camera pans back to the pool side. Dorje is in the center of the focus, he swims back to the shoreside and meets Norbu, who is standing there. Then the camera refocus on Norbu, whose stare towards Dorje is not hostile anymore. Using the fast movement of protagonists within a long-take is a distinctive feature of Gyal. He prefers to use long-takes to ensure the continuity of camera movement and show characters relations to audiences directly in order to highlight the interconnections amongst people, surroundings and his camera.

Apart from underlining the slowly developing love and reconciliation between father and son, Gyal’s stories are about the motif of finding. His protagonists are always on a journey to seek something, whether atonement in religion (River), waiting for the re-acceptance of families (The Sun Beaten Path) or fulfilling a promise. As Tibet is a largely unfrequented territory, the spectacle of this plateau has remained relatively unchanged. As a result of this, the spatio-temporal environment, story and audio-visual languages of Tibetan-themed films is usually characterised by slowness and stillness. We focus on the long-takes in film and the slowness of the protagonists per se. At the same time, we forget the transformation of time and dimension, but focus on the detailed changes of roles. Gyal’s protagonists are pertinacious but philosopher-like, generous and open-minded to difficulties, even death, and stick to destinies. The journey is sufficient for them to experience lengthy time lapse and look for what they really want.

The film’s title comes from the name of a Tibetan toast song, and is basically irrelevant to its theme. However, the Tibetan people, and us, are powerless to the lapse of time and the disappearance of memorable things. Even so, we still have to experience our bitersweet life by moving forward. Ala Changso is a wonderful film which demonstrates the spectacle and culture of Tibet and its people. More importantly, it offers a great example of the aesthetic of stillness, which can be regarded as the essence of good slow cinema.