With their debut documentary Becoming Who I Was, co-directors/cinematographers/editors Moon Chang-yong and Jeon Jin have created a film that possesses the narrative simplicity and emotional depth wedded to landscape that characterise the most memorable Italian neorealist films, especially those centered on children. Set in the Ladakh region of northern India, the documentary charts the formative years of a child monk, Padma Angdu, as he prepares himself for a path in life that is proper to one who is recognised as a reincarnate of a previous high-ranking Tibetan monk. Such a status is known as a ‘Rinpoche,’ who as a baby must be given up by his mother to a proxy monastery until disciples from his appointed monastery in Kham, Tibet (following the monk of whom he is a reincarnate) take him where he rightfully belongs. As part of his training, he has a teacher in Urgain Rigzin, with whom he lives. Urgain, a traditional doctor in the area, gives up his work to devote himself full-time to Padma as a teacher aiding him in his studies apart from his regular schooling. Shot in mainly an observational style over the course of eight years and concisely edited to draw out ever so finely – and not forcefully – the strong emotional bond between Padma and Urgain, Moon and Jin capture that slippery thing called childhood, prepubescence, and the movement between, rendered all the more complex given Padma’s status.
One first sees Padma aged nine in the middle of a ceremony in which he gives blessings. Surrounded in such formality, a distance is established. The film’s earliest footage included in the film was shot in 2009, when Padma aged five arrived at Urgain’s doorstep, and 2010, the year of his enthronement as a Rinpoche. Following this footage, the film returns to the ceremony, which implies that Padma’s trajectory as a Rinpoche has been smooth. In truth, it has been far from the case. But rather than pitifully dwell on what does not happen to Padma in the handful of years that follow, which would have reductively defined him as a waiting-to-be or child interrupted, Moon and Jin focus instead on what is undeniably happening, and that is Padma a child basking in his childhood while also growing up. Epitomising the dual lives of his childhood and the monk of whom he is a reincarnate and the film’s balancing of this duality is a shot of Padma in the midst of the ceremony: in a close-up, Padma’s quite solemn face suddenly breaks into a grin, however briefly. And just as suddenly – and irrevocably – he is humanised.
The bulk of the film is of Padma and Urgain’s ‘mundane’ lives together, during the former’s ‘orphan’ years from ages nine to twelve, driven by the former’s devotion and commitment to seeing through Padma’s studies as a Rinpoche. (As a caption explains, the monastery that had accepted him as a baby removes him when the expected arrival of his disciples from Kham does not occur. He is thus left in limbo, or as Urgain puts it, like an orphan.) Over the course of the film, Urgain’s calm blend of pragmatic wisdom and sense of gaiety is the emotional constant for Padma, whose childhoodness is allowed to simply be with Urgain, even as the prestige and waiting game of being a Rinpoche becomes increasingly a burden: snowball fights with Urgain and the many other ways in which they fill each other with laughter; hanging out with his friends from school or his family; breaking out into tears when he and Urgain must separate for a while; and expressing feelings of frustration, heartbreak, and even rebellion, when his life path is obstructed (not being attached to a monastery or some villagers calling him a fake Rinpoche). One could even say that thanks to these ‘orphan’ years, Padma is able to enjoy a childhood, however temporarily.
But also part of Padma’s ‘orphan’ years is undeniably moving from childhood to prepubescence, which becomes most apparent whenever he visits his mother or is left alone at home while Urgain makes doctor rounds for a week. Presenting the unvarnished, fearless, and energetic candour of children — as he puts wood in the stove, cooks for himself, entertains two of his friends with tea and conversation, and, when Urgain returns, helps to nurse him back to health — Padma takes his place amongst the likes of Enzo Staiola (Bicycle Thieves), Edmund Moeschke (Germany Year Zero), and Razieh Mohammadkhani (The White Balloon, The Mirror) in conveying that magical tension of being, located between documentary and fiction, as captured in Italian and Iranian neorealist films.
The last third of the film becomes a literal, physical journey towards Padma’s calling, when Urgain takes it upon himself to embark on a long journey from Ladakh to (hopefully) Kham with Padma. If Padma’s aforementioned sudden grin epitomises the duality of his lives as a child and Rinpoche and the film’s own thematic balancing of them, then his and Urgain’s journey (and not the outcome) encapsulates the bond between these two people that comes to include the spectator. Moreover, the journey represents the culmination of the film’s recurring image of Padma and Urgain walking side by side, hand in hand, through rain, snow, and sunshine, and the years that separate as well as connect them.
Becoming Who I Was was shown as part of the International Documentary Feature Competition in this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on 5 May.