‘I know who I am, isn’t that enough?’ Tharlo (Shide Nyima) asks police chief Dorje at one point during the long conversation that opens Pema Tseden’s latest feature film. Their extended conversation, shot in one long take, begins with Tharlo solely occupying the center of the frame and reciting an extended passage of Mao’s Quotations in Mandarin. When Tharlo concludes his recitation, quoted entirely from memory, chief Dorje emerges on-screen from frame right, impressed by Tharlo’s remarkable powers of recall. Yet when chief Dorje asks his age, Tharlo does not exactly remember. With such startling economy, Tseden establishes the underlying conflict of his film, underlined by the film’s stark black-and-white cinematography: the opposing existential temporalities of bureaucracy/imposed history (manifested by Mao’s Quotations and the Mandarin language) and of land/localness (expressed through Tharlo’s uncertain age and the Tibetan language), and how this opposition impinges on identity (formation). This long opening conversation also encompasses bits of Tharlo’s past (his primary school education, his current occupation as a sheepherder of other people’s sheep) and chief Dorje’s comments on his memory (‘what a waste of talent’). It finally concludes with identity through the detail of getting an I.D. card, hence Tharlo’s presence at the police station in the first place. Yet this seemingly small, administrative detail is the catalyst for the aforementioned opposition and its distinct impact on Tharlo’s subjectivity. Later in the film, Tharlo returns to the police station to speak with chief Dorje and asks, ‘Is an I.D. card really that important?’ As the film comes to imply in the course of following Tharlo’s experiences of obtaining an I.D. card and meeting people along the way, pushed as a metaphor for the film’s thematic opposition, an I.D. card is important. But in a way that is detriment to the person him/herself, understood not as respecting one’s identity but rather as a bureaucratic appropriation of one’s sense of self and way of living.
In the span of an undisclosed period of time, beginning with his visit to the police station and conversation with chief Dorje, Tharlo goes about the town center — accompanied by his baby lamb in his bag — to obtain that necessary I.D. card. Following chief Dorje’s suggestion, he goes to the Dekyi Photo Studio for a passport photo. However, the photographer first makes him go to the barber across the street to tidy up. At the barber’s, he meets Yingtsao (Yangshik Tso), a young woman whose quiet demeanour belies an aggressive spirit and desire for something more in life.
After getting his photo taken, he walks back to the barber’s and speaks with her; in turn, she invites him to go to a karaoke bar that evening. He complies, and the sequence at the karaoke bar further draws out the clash of generations and different/opposing temporalities. When Yingtsao insists that Tharlo takes the mic to sing, Tseden composes the shot of him singing rather strikingly: Tharlo occupies the left side of the frame, while the TV playing a video occupies the right side of the frame. The contrast becomes more pronounced when Tharlo abandons the mic and sings a Tibetan folk song while the TV continues its video (in Mandarin) but with the sound muffled — drowned out by Tharlo’s natural voice. The following morning, Yingtsao gently asks Tharlo to go away with her — to Lhasa, Beijing, and anywhere in the world. She even tells him to get the money for travel by selling the sheep that he tends, to which she will contribute with money earned at the barber’s. For a moment, a possibility that the film will become a ‘Tibetan noir’ surfaces, with Yingtsao as the proverbial femme fatale. Yet Tharlo departs upon hearing of the scheme, without answering her.
Faced with a temporal/existential fork in the road, it is therefore significant that from Yingtsao’s place Tharlo returns to the police station to speak briefly with chief Dorje and asks, among other things, if an I.D. card is really that important. Read more figuratively and in the context of Yingtsao’s plan, the question can perhaps be rephrased as ‘What will I be sacrificing of my sense of self if I participate in the plan?’ Yingtsao’s plan is therefore practically equated with getting an I.D. card.
The film is thus a veiled meditation on identity, with shades of noir in the way Yingtsao’s plan unfolds for both her and Tharlo. The film also develops its noir trappings through its constant use of frames-within-frames and play with the relationship of different spatial planes in shots (background/foreground, left/right), present in a majority of scenes when Tharlo is in town. Such compositional choices cultivate a sense of claustrophobia, or at the very least, unease and a subtle imbalance of power. Scenes with Yingtsao are particularly notable for their play with multiple spatial planes and frames-within-frames, in keeping with her pseudo femme fatale character, at her place and at the barber’s.
In contrast, when Tharlo is in the countryside where he lives and tends to his sheep (though he does not own them), the landscape and its accompanying temporality preclude shots of frames-within-frames. In the rural empty, he is solitary; unfettered by modern contrivances (save a radio and a motorbike), social pressure, and their architectural planes; and free to be who he is without the need of a document to say who he is or ought to be. In a sense, the land is his identity. The only instance of a frames-within-frames shot occurs when an outsider — the owner of the sheep — arrives at his site, angry at Tharlo for having allowed a number of sheep to be killed by wolves. Faced with another encroachment on his sense of self and way of living, this time on the land where he feels most comfortable, Tharlo reaches a breaking point. But this breaking point does not reveal itself until he goes back to town. Moreover, this breaking point is not a yell, a cry, or even a sudden outburst. It is hushed, summed up in several gestures when he sees Yingtsao again.
The staggering irony about Tharlo’s journey to obtain his I.D. card, a document whose purpose is to disclose and/or confirm one’s identity in image and words, is that in the course of doing so, he loses the identity that he has — the identity of an uncertain age, of being a sheepherder and its concomitant temporality. This irony is the power of Tseden’s film, translated into stark imagery of frames-within-frames and multiple spatial planes, heightened by the film’s conclusion, and outweighing the more heavy-handed symbolism (ponytail, lamb, memory).
As such, the answer to Tharlo’s first question of ‘I know who I am, isn’t that enough?’ ends up being a categorical ‘No.’
Tharlo is available on DVD as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.