The Search opens with the silhouette of a man, looking out over a vast, uninhabited, mountainous landscape, first only surrounded by the sounds of the wind, birds, and wildlife. The sudden roar of an approaching Jeep is accompanied by the sounds of its honk and radio music. The man turns, and we see that he is smoking a cigarette; the camera follows as he walks toward the Jeep, behind him we can now see a village below, and he gets into the vehicle. The man turns out to be the film director (Pema Tseden), the Jeep full of his crew (driver, videographer, businessman), and they are searching for a man and a woman to perform the leading roles in a traditional Tibetan opera they plan to film. Billed as a feature film, its cinematic style is closer to that of a documentary, merging the two genres as do many contemporary Asian films.
The episodic visits to various villages and urban centers to find potential actors and actresses are interpolated with the drives between locales, giving documentary-style depictions of the Jeep driving through the hillside, often crossing paths (literally and figuratively) with nomadic herders and their animals. These drives are accompanied by the ongoing narration of the Tibetan businessman’s first love, paralleling to some degree the story of a young girl traveling with the film crew.
Early in the film, they are joined by this young woman, who they favor for the leading role of Mande Zangmo, but who will only accept the role if her former boyfriend, a young man who moved away to the city to become a teacher, can be convinced to play the leading role of Drime Kunden. The film follows the crew’s travels through contemporary Tibet on their way to meet the teacher, showing a contrasting image to the typical exoticized images of Tibet frequently seen in the West. We meet local dance and theater troupes, adults who used to play these characters in their village performances when they were young, young monks who perform their various skills at recitation and dialectics, a Tibetan Charlie Chaplin impersonator, and more.
The film is a metaphor for many kinds of searches. It is a search for actors in an opera, a search for love, and a search for, according to the director, Tibet’s disappearing culture (Lim 2009). The Search is also a landmark film in that it is the first fully Tibetan film in China: filmed by a Tibetan, in the Tibetan language, with an all-Tibetan cast and crew.
The Search, as a relatively slow moving drama, will probably not interest younger students. It would be most useful as a point of departure in college class discussions on ethnic and national identity, how the past is remembered, on the discourse of change, or how perceptions of history influence the present. Its length (almost two hours) makes it unlikely to be used in a classroom.
The Search, directed by Pema Tseden, co-produced by Tien Zhuangzhuang, and released in 2009, was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Shanghai International Film Festival. It is being shown as part of AEMS’s “Asian Film Festival 2010: Visualizing Tibet,” Saturday, November 6th at 7pm, and Sunday, November 7th at 1pm, both in the Spurlock Museum in Urbana, IL.
Hilary Brady Morris is a Ph.D. candidate with a special interest in Tibetan culture in the Department of Ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois.
Last Updated: November 1, 2010