“Thieves Like Us” - Robert Altman (1974)

Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974) offered a continuation of the plaintive romantic theme that had underlain his earlier masterwork McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – that of innocent love struggling to find itself in an uncaring American social setting.  Again the evocation of an historic social milieu, on this occasion the Depression-era American South, provides an atmospheric backdrop for the melancholic romantic tale that is told. 

The film was made during a period when Altman’s creative genius was at it height and led to the production of, besides McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us, two other masterpieces  – The Long Good-bye (1973), and Nashville (1975).  These films were all emblematic of Altman’s distinctive group-oriented mise-en-scene, which featured several innovative techniques for embedding the viewer into the narrative, some of which I have described in my review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  For example in connection with Altman’s use of sound, I remarked that
“Altman’s innovations in connection with spoken dialogue, which were initiated here in this film [McCabe & Mrs. Miller], are even more well-known and have come to represent something of a stamp with respect to his filmmaking.  Using 8-track sound recording, he emphatically overlapped multiple conversations going on in a scene so that it was hard for the viewer to discern what was being said by the personages of presumed narrative focalization [5].  Indeed this made it sometimes difficult for the viewer to determine what actually was the intended narrative focalization for a scene, at least at its outset.  And this is what Altman wanted – he felt it was more true to life.”
And, of course, these production values held true for Thieves Like Us, as well.

The story of the film is based on Edward Anderson’s’ novel Thieves Like Us (1937), which had earlier formed the basis of Nicholas Ray’s film noir They Live by Night (1948).  It concerns what happens to three men serving life sentences in the Mississippi state penitentiary who break out of prison and immediately engage in a bank-robbing spree.  But a major focus of the story is on the romantic relationship of the youngest member of the gang with a girl that he meets along the way.  In that sense we could say that Thieves Like Us belongs to the special thematic category of love on the run from the law, a genre which includes such classics by well-known auteurs as the already mentioned They Live by Night (1949), as well as Gun Crazy (1950), Breathless (1960), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973), and The Sugarland Express (1974).

Many of the films in this love-on-the-run genre place an emphasis on the romantic thrill of recklessness, usually on the part of the existential loner who is fleeing the law.  But Thieves Like Us is a little different; its thematic undercurrent is that of innocence.  And we must remember that in this context, innocence does not imply moral virtue, but instead simply naiveté.  When innocence is not provided with socially-inspired directions or moral themes (which can even evoke heroism), it can wind up just devoting itself to escape from boredom.  And that is what we have in Thieves Like Us. In fact Altman doesn’t provide much coverage of the dramatic bank robberies that take place in  the film; they mostly take place offscreen. Instead there is more of a focus on the more humdrum and personal aspects of the thieves’ lives.

Underscoring this point is another aspect of Altman’s innovative mise-en-scene – his aural presentation of dramatic radio shows in the diegetic background and on the soundtrack.  Radio dramas of this period before television (1937) were generally overly histrionic presentations of simple-minded narratives intended to relieve the boredom of an apathetic public weighed down by Depression-era concerns. 

In this connection the three escaped convicts making up the newly formed bank-robbing gang embody different flavors of escape from boredom:
  • T. W. “T-Dub” Mason (played by Bert Remsen) is 44 and is the organizer and supposed “brains” of the gang of thieves.  He seems good-natured and appears only to have gotten into bank-robbing as a profession just by chance circumstances.  But he is not above killing people who block his way.
     
  • Elmo “Chicamaw” Mobley (John Schuck) is 38 and is the number-2 man of the group.  He is a hot-headed narcissist whose three interests in life are alcohol, women, and robbing banks.  He is much more ruthless than T-Dub, and his main concern in life is being recognized as somebody important.
     
  • Bowie Bowers (Keith Carradine), 23, is particularly callow and amiable, but he was convicted of murder at the age of 16.  Although he is basically well-meaning, he expresses, at one point in the film, no regrets about his having entered into a life of crime.  It is his innocence and that of his love, Keetchie, that is principally focalized in the film.
These men are always congratulating themselves that life is special, indeed, among “thieves like  us”.

The story of Thieves Like Us passes through four dramatic stages.

1.  Escape and Robberies
In the opening sequences T-Dub, Chicamaw, and Bowie escape from prison and make their way to hideout with Chicamaw’s cousin, Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt), who is an auto garage mechanic living with his daughter Keetchie (Shelley Duvall).  The three criminals then carry out some bank robberies, the details of which the viewer doesn’t see, because the focalization of this story is concentrated on Bowie, who is the gang’s getaway car driver waiting outside the bank. 

After one of the robberies, they hideout in the home of T-Dub’s sister-in-law, Mattie (Louise Fletcher).  In their leisure time they decide to play a make-believe game with Mattie’s three kids, and the make-believe game they come up with is the only thing that stokes their imaginations – robbing a make-believe bank.  During the game Chicamaw reveals his subconscious weaknesses by losing his temper and threatening to shoot the children with his real gun.

Afterwards they all decide to lay low for a month until their next appointed bank robbery to take place in Yazoo City.

2.  Bowie and Keetchie
On the road, with Bowie and Chicamaw driving separate cars and playfully trying to overtake each other, Bowie gets into an accident and is seriously injured.  The always hot-tempered and injudicious Chicamaw comes on the accident scene and shoots two investigating police officers before whisking the injured Bowie back to his cousin Dee’s home.

While recuperating in Dee’s home, Bowie gets more acquainted with Dee’s unsophisticated and artless daughter, Keetchie, and the two of them start tentatively falling in love.  Here is innocence in the flesh, and the sensitive performances of Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall make these sequences a highlight of the film.  After time passes, though, Bowie’s appointment date approaches, and despite Keetchie’s protests, Bowie heads off to Yazoo City.

3.  The Yazoo City Caper
This time, because Bowie is actively involved inside the bank, the robbery is shown in detail, mostly in overhead shots.  Again, the robbery is successful, although T-Dub and Chicamaw fire some lethal shots at bank employees.  Afterwards, they split up with a new meetup appointment set.  But Bowie soon hears on his car radio that the police have shot and killed T-Dub and that Chicamaw has been imprisoned.

4.  No Escape
Bowie returns to the still-pouting Keetchie, and they soon renew their avowals of true love.  Bowie now takes Keetchie to a motel that T-Dub had bought with his stolen money for Mattie. Mattie is reluctant to let them stay there, but Bowie insists.

Keetchie desperately wants Bowie to give up a life of crime and place their love above all such selfish considerations, but he still has at least one more secret caper to pull off.  Masquerading as a cop, Bowie goes to the prison where Chicamaw is being held and manages to spring him.  However, after the always hot-headed Chicamaw kills the prison captain and then abusively accuses Bowie of being a two-bit hick, Bowie abandons Chicamaw on the road, presumably condemning him to death.

But when Bowie returns to the motel to see Keetchie, the viewer sees that he has been betrayed by Mattie, who has arranged for a squadron of policemen to ambush him.  They fire a fusillade of bullets into him while the screaming Keetchie looks on helplessly in horror.

The final scene shows Keetchie waiting in a train station for a long trip to Fort Worth and a new start in  life.  She is pregnant with Bowie’s child (Bowie never knew about her pregnant condition), but she informs a fellow waiting passenger that if the unborn child is a boy, she will not name it after the father, because he betrayed her.


Thieves Like Us is a sad and fatalistic film, but it is a moving one and well worth reseeing. Although it was well-received when it was released [1,2], it is not generally ranked as a classic; but it is one of my all-time favorites. It reminds us that true love is natural and can appear anytime and anywhere.  Love can bring about deliverance and redemption, but we know that it doesn’t always conquer, as was the case in this film.  So we are reminded that we must not let go of those loving encounters and relationships that are so crucially important to our lives.  And that is why the film is so especially poignant. 
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Judith Christ, “Roadside Refreshment”, New York Magazine, (11 February 1974), pp. 74-75.     
  2. Roger Ebert, “Thieves Like Us”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 1974).   

“Lust, Caution” - Ang Lee (2007)

Ang Lee’s” tense drama Lust, Caution (Sè, Jiè, 2007) has drawn a variety of critical responses.  Indeed the film encompasses a number of topics and styles – history, politics, romance, erotica, psychology, etc. – and these can generate different reactions on various levels.  This film about some Chinese resistance efforts during the devastating Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) is based on Eileen Chang’s moving novella Lust, Caution (1979) [1], which is equally multi-faceted.  Eileen Chang (aka Zhang Ailing), who is one of my favorite authors, lived in Hong Kong and Shanghai during this hectic war period that led to the deaths of millions [2], and her writing reflects on how those circumstances impinged on human consciousness.  And in this connection, I also recommend for your reading her famous story “Love in a Fallen City” (“Qing Cheng Zhi Lia”, 1943).

The story of Lust, Caution focuses on a young woman who is recruited to join a Chinese resistance plot to assassinate a high figure in the Chinese puppet government working for the occupying Japanese.  It is her job to seduce the assassination target and lure him to a place free from his security guards where he can be murdered.  Along the way, we get a glimpse into the complexity of her feelings as they evolve over the course of the plot.

Lee’s film follows the basic elements of Chang’s story closely, but in order to provide more background for the plot, it expands on the earlier conspiratorial elements of the plotters, and this occupies much of the first half of the film.  In general, Lee seems to be trying to evoke the psychological mood of Chang’s story, but he pursues his quest with different, more visual, means.  This led to some critics, particularly in the US, complaining that the film was too slow (it runs more than two-and-a-half hours) before it reaches its disturbing denouement.  In addition, Lee introduced some viscerally graphic violent sequences that were not part of Chang’s more internally focused tale.  These scenes include a horrifically bloody murder of a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese, as well as some very explicit and aggressive sexual scenes involving the two principal characters.  The explicit sex scenes attracted (or distracted) a lot of the public’s attention and led to the film being rated NC-17 (adults only) in the United States. In my view these graphic scenes were perhaps over-cooked, but they do contribute to the overall conflicting moods of the story.

Nevertheless, and despite the various critical misgivings about the film, Lust, Caution won the Golden Lion for best film at the 2007 Venice Film Festival and was a big hit worldwide, particularly in Asia.  This is because in my view the film moodily captures the evolving and conflicting feelings of its main characters. 

The success of this telling is heavily dependent on the film’s well-crafted production values. In particular the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto maintains intimacy by using extensive closeups of the main characters.  Besides showing the subtle emotive states of these characters, this evokes an almost claustrophobic feeling of confinement that seems to constrain the autonomy of these figures.  This effort of cinematic confinement is on several occasions carried to far, though, as Prieto’s camera, holding to closeup compositions, sometimes nervously pans around the room following random movements of various characters.  This agitated panning doesn’t work, because there is no narrative perspective for the shots, i.e. the narrative “unseen witness” of the camera is not appropriately motivated. Nevertheless, the overall atmosphere of environmental confinement is effectively evoked. 

Another key production element is the musical score by multiple award-winning composer Alexandre Desplat. This unobtrusively creates just the right emotional tone for the film’s evolving mood.

A third key production component concerns the acting performances of the film’s two leads –  Wei Tang and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung.  Much of the time they convey their feelings not through words but through expressive reaction shots that seem to convey rising sentiments and evolving, sometimes hesitantly, held affections.  And both of these performances are excellent.  Wei Tang was a relative newcomer, but Tony Leung’s expressive reticence has long highlighted the Hong Kong film scene, notably in Days of Being Wild (1990). Chungking Express (1994), Ashes of Time (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), Hero (2002), and 2046 (2004).

There are several key thematic elements in the film, but one of the most important ones is that of role-playing.  We are all constantly being cast into multiple, parallel narratives in our lives involving multiple roles, and these multiple roles overlap in our inner selves and collectively affect who we are.  For example the character Wong Chia Chi (played by Wei Tang) plays the following distinct roles:
  • College Student.
    In the beginning she is just “herself”, a teenager who moves from Japanese-occupied Shanghai to Hong Kong and enters college there.
     
  • Member of Subversive Resistance Cell.
    Subsequently Wong Chia Chi becomes a member of a secret resistance group working to kill high-level figures who work for the Japanese occupiers.
     
  • Socialite Housewife
    As a subversive agent, she masquerades as Mak Tai Tai (Mrs. Mak), the wife of an imaginary wealthy businessman Mr. Mak, so that she can join the social circle of Yee Tai Tai, the wife of her assassination target.
     
  • Secret Lover
    Once she meets her targeted victim, Mr. Yee, she commences a clandestine sexual affair with the man, which of course must be kept secret from everybody.
We see Wong Chia Chi move between the separate roles and the cumulative effect these various masks have on her.  Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) has his multiple roles, too – Chinese government official, agent for the Japanese invaders, husband, and secret extra-marital lover.

The story of Lust, Caution passes through four stages, the first of which is actually a foreshadowed segment of the last.

1.  Japanese-occupied Shanghai, 1942
The first stage shows scenes that will only become clear later.  Mak Tai Tai (Wei Tang) is shown playing mahjong at the home of Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen) and some other members of the hostess’s well-to-do social circle.  Yee Tai Tai’s husband, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), shows up, and he appears to exchange a momentary meaningful glance with Mak Tai Tai.  She then excuses herself from the game and goes outside into a restaurant in town, where she makes an obscure telephone call to some armed people who are evidently preparing themselves for a murderous mission.  What all this means will only become clear near the end of the film.

2.  Shanghai - Hong Kong, 1938
The film now moves to a flashback four years earlier.  The Japanese have taken over Shanghai, and the people there are suffering under the suddenly destitute conditions.  A young woman, Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) makes it to war-free Hong Kong and enrols in a university there as a drama student.  She quickly joins a theater group headed by a charismatic young director, Kuang Yu Min (Leehom Wang), who is a passionate Chinese patriot.  After staging a successful patriotic play starring Wong Chia Chi, Kuang reveals to his theater group his more ambitious and radical ambition – to recruit them into forming an underground resistance group that will assassinate high-level Chinese collaborators of the Japanese.  Their first target will be Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), who works in Hong Kong as an agent for the Chinese puppet government that is overseen by the Japanese in occupied China. 

Because of Wong Chia Chi’s beauty and acting talents, she is setup to be the married seductress, Mak Tai Tai, who is to get to know Mrs. Yee and then ultimately lure Mr. Yee into a place where he will be unaccompanied by his bodyguards.  Wong Chia Chi’s commitment to her cause is tested when she learns that her lack of sexual experience will have to be corrected by having some training “practice” with one of her more experienced co-conspirators. 

In the event, their murder plan almost works, but it has to be called off at the last minute.  The resistance group then quickly learns that Yee has been transferred to Shanghai, and their assassination plans have to be abandoned.

At this point in the film, there is a bloody encounter with Tsao, a Chinese Japan-collaborationist who had earlier introduced Kuang Yu Min to Mr. Yee and who has now discovered that Kuang and his mates were not who they claimed to be.  This confrontation results in Tsao’s violent death at the hands of Kuang and his group, and afterwards they have to disband and go their separate ways.  It is a horrifically gory scene full of blood, and it was not part of Eileen Chang’s original story.  Although it does add additional gritty reality to the conspirators’ passionate commitment to their cause, I don’t believe Lee’s insertion of this material was necessary or effective.  Nevertheless, the film’s other virtues are enough to compensate for this defect. 

3.  Shanghai, 1942
The scene now shifts ahead several years to the Shanghai setting seen in the film’s opening stage.  Wong Chia Chi has returned from Hong Kong, and on the street she happens to run into Kuang Yu Min, who informs her that he has moved to Shanghai and is now a secret agent for the Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) government still ruling the China that is unoccupied.  Kuang has always seemed to have an unspoken romantic interest in Wong, but circumstances have always gotten in the way of their taking things further.  When they connect again this time, Kuang tells her that he is still intent on assassinating Mr. Yee, who he tells her is now head of the puppet government’s secret police.  Kuang reassembles his assassination team, and again Wong Chia Chi is recruited as the seductress of Mr. Yee. 

In short order Wong Chia Chi resumes her former fake identity as Mak Tai Tai, and she is reintroduced to Mrs. Yee’s social circle.  She also resumes her clandestine relationship with Mr. Yee, and now it becomes more serious.  They are soon engaging in intense sexual trysts which seem only to serve the physical lusts of the two participants. 

For his part Yee seems almost to be a sadistic misogynist, but Wong, herself, also indulges in her role as a lustful prostitute to the hilt.  These explicit and extended scenes embellish Chang’s story, and they have attracted much attention.  But they do fit into the overall narrative themes of Lee’s film.  As Wong engages in what is initially just purely deceptive role-playing, her self-satisfying lustful pleasures seem to leak over into and overlap with her other personae. She starts developing real feelings for Yee.  On one occasion Wong soulfully sings and dances a love song for Yee, and this elicits tears from the usually poker-faced Yee.  What was initially just self-gratification is now turning to real attachment.

4.  Conclusion
The film now moves to scenes that encompass what was shown at the beginning of the film – the planned assassination attempt on Mr. Yee.  Yee and Wong are privately visiting a jeweler from whom Yee is purchasing a large diamond for Wong.  At the last moment, Wong, almost as if she is listening to a hidden voice inside her, quietly warns Yee to run away, and the ever-cautious Yee takes heed and flees the scene.  This leads to the tragic finale depicting the obliteration of Wong and her resistance colleagues.


One might say that there are two main themes that underlie Lust, Caution.  One concerns the provocative notion that physical lust can, thanks to the way our compartmentalized inner personae overlap with each other, lead to personal intimacy.  This is the opposite of the way things are conventionally supposed to evolve, where growing personal intimacy can gradually lead to physical (i.e. sexual) intimacy. In Lust, Caution this reverse direction of lust –> personal intimacy is what has been most conspicuous to the public and has attracted the most critical attention.

But it is another, more general, theme that I find even more compelling, and that one concerns the way we make efforts to compartmentalize our private personae so that they can operate freely within the scope of separate partitioned narratives.  Yee was obsessed with the need for secrecy – the need to protect his separate narratives from having any contact with each other.  Wong Chia Chi, for her part, also tried to keep her inner personae separate, but in the end her authentic self asserted itself and invoked a more unified sense of who she was.  For this she paid the highest price.  But if we think about our basic existential goals in life, isn’t this what we ultimately live for?

So although the lust theme attracted the most media attention, it is the caution theme that is the more fascinating. And it is under its spell that we are drawn into Ang Lee’s vision of Eileen Chang’s moody and fatalistic story of existential confinement and release. 
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), Lust, Caution, (1979), Anchor Books, Random House (2007).
  2. “Second Sino-Japanese War”, New World Encyclopedia, (26 August 2015).   

“The Right Kind of House”, AHP, Season Three: Episode 23 - Don Taylor (1958)

“The Right Kind of House” was an episode on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television anthology series (Season 3, Episode 23) that was scripted by Robert C. Dennis and based on a story by Henry Slesar.  It stars veteran character actors Robert Emhardt and Jeanette Nolan, who match up well in this clever encounter.  As is typical with many of the episodes of this series, this story involves a duplicitous character whose nefarious plans come awry at the end.

The story begins with a well-outfitted older man, Mr. Waterbury (played by Robert Emhardt), driving his big convertible through a small town and showing an interest in buying an old house that he sees on sale there.  He learns from the local real-estate agent that the house has been on sale for five years, but its owner, Sadie Grimes (Jeanette Nolan), has stubbornly insisted on a selling price of $50,000, which is five times the house’s market value.  So Waterbury decides  to go visit Mrs. Grimes and see if he can negotiate with her himself..

When Waterbury visits Mrs. Grimes, she is cordial but refuses to budge on her price.  Waterbury thinks it over and after reflecting that this is “the right kind of house” for him, finally agrees to pay the full purchase price.  Mrs. Grimes smiles and tells him that she will serve him some lemonade and tell him the story about her house.

Mrs. Grimes tells him (shown in dramatic flashback) how her son Michael (James Drury) returned home from New York City to visit his mother five years ago.  After some time, an intruder breaks into the house and kills Michael.  When the police come to investigate, they report to her that Michael had been part of a criminal gang that had robbed $200,000 from a bank in New York and that Michael had made off with all the money and kept it for himself.  The stolen cash was never found.

Upon hearing this account, Waterbury discusses with Mrs. Grimes the whereabouts of the stolen money.  She tells him that it must be hidden somewhere in the house and that the only person who might know where to look for it would be someone with the guilt-identifying behavior of being willing to buy her house for five times its market value.  And that man, she adds, would be, for sure, the person who killed her son.

Waterbury smiles in his slimy fashion, and tells her she made a mistake in not calling the police before telling him her story and thereby informing him that she now knows that he is the culprit.  But she smiles equally ruthlessly in return and tells him that he made a much bigger mistake – he drank that lemonade!

The story of “The Right Kind of House” is simple, but appropriately crafty.  A trap was set for the villainous perpetrator by the vengeful victim, and he walked right into it.  The effectiveness of the tale’s telling is enhanced by the appropriately dramatic performances of Robert Emhardt and Jeanette Nolan.
½

“Milarepa” - Neten Chokling (2006)

Milarepa (aka Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint and The Life of Milarepa - Part I; 2006) is a film about UJetsun Milarepa (1052-1135), one of the most famous and revered of all Tibetan Buddhist Lama/Saints [1].  The film covers the early, sorcery period of Milarepa’s life, prior to his conversion to Buddhism.  

An interesting feature of the film is that it was made by Tibetan monks and shot with local, nonprofessional actors in the picturesque Spiti Valley in northern India near the Tibetan border [2].  Indeed, the film’s director and co-scriptwriter, Neten Chokling, is, himself, an important lama from Bhutan who was recognized at an early age by the 16th Tibetan Buddhist Karmapa as the reincarnation of an eminent earlier Buddhist lama [3,4].  Chokling has long been associated with another Bhutanese lama/filmmaker, Khyentse Norbu, and he most likely learned much about filmmaking from his participation in Norbu’s films The Cup (1999) and Travelers and Magicians (2003), on which he had small acting parts.   In addition, one of Neten Chokling’s teachers, Orgyen Tobgyal, is another important lama in the Neten Chokling Rinpoche family line (people in this culture can be linked to a family line by religious certification that they are reincarnations of earlier family members), and he plays a significant role as a key yogi/tutor of the protagonist in Milarepa [5] (he also had a small role in Norbu’s The Cup).  

Thus the film probably has a more Tibetan Buddhist practitioner’s focus on this depiction of their saint’s formative years, and this is a general perspective that the film presumably shares with Khyentse Norbu’s films. Stylistically, Chokling seems to have learned from his work with Norbu the production skills associated with the latter’s adroit use of picturesque long shots that are combined with expressive closeups and which together offer a uniquely expressive philosophical visual landscape.

This story of Milarepa’s early years follows traditional accounts and passes through three phases.  During this early period of his life, prior to his conversion to Buddhism, he was known by his given family name, Mila Thopaga.

1.  Thopaga’s Early Years
Thopaga is born into a prosperous Tibetan family, but at the age of seven, Thopaga’s wealthy father becomes mortally ill.  The father formally confers the guardianship of his wife Kargyen (played b y Kelsang Chukie Tethong) and his son to his brother and sister, and he gets their solemn promise that they will pass onto the boy his rightful inheritance when he comes of age at sixteen.  However, immediately on the father’s death, Thopaga’s greedy aunt and uncle confiscate the deceased father’s wealthy possessions and subject Kargyen and Thopaga to menial servitude.  

When Thopaga (Jamyang Lodro) reaches the age of sixteen, his mother, hopeful that justice will be restored, hosts a coming-of-age ceremony, at which she formally requests before the community that Thopaga’s inheritance be bestowed on him, as had been promised.  But Thopaga’s uncle angrily dismisses the request and says the family wealth all belongs to him.  He rudely shoves Kargyen to the ground, and a scuffle breaks out, during which the assembled community members show no support for Kargyen and Thopaga.  Kargyen is humiliated and vows revenge.

She sells her last possessions in order to send Thopaga away to study sorcery under a master so that Thopaga can come back and wreak her desired vengeance on his evil aunt and uncle.  Before he departs, she swears to him
“If vengeance does not come soon, I will kill myself in your very presence.”
2.  Thopaga Learns Sorcery
Thopaga sets off on his journey to study sorcery under renowned master Yongten Trogyal (Orgyen Tobgyal). Hearing about his nephew’s intentions of learning sorcery, Thopaga’s uncle  gathers a posse to chase after the boy and thwart his plans.  However, a fortuitous or magical intervention by Yongten Trogyal’s son, Dhama, casts a spell of confusion over Thopaga’s pursuers, and the boy arrives safely at the yogi’s remote mountainside residence.  There Thopaga learns various sorcery techniques. all intended to deliver great harm to one’s enemies. None of the techniques, it seems, can be used to bring about good or loving connections.

But Thopaga feels that the magic he is learning is not strong enough to carry out the vengeance he is seeking, so Yongten Trogyal sends the boy to an even greater sorcery master, Yonten Gatso.  After spending fourteen days entrapped continuously meditating in an enclosed stone cell, Thopaga finally acquires the vast powers he is seeking.  He returns to his village.

3.  Thopaga’s Return
Upon Thopaga’s return, he stops by a mountainside outside his town and uses his newly acquired magical powers to conjure up a devastating storm to strike his village.  The storm demolishes the village and kills 35 people, but Thopaga’s uncle and aunt somehow manage to survive.  Thopaga’s mother, Kargyen, joyfully and triumphantly celebrates her revenge.  For her, long-sought justice has finally prevailed.  But Thopaga is disturbed when he sees all the suffering he has wrought.  Nevertheless, when his uncle discovers Thopaga’s whereabouts on the mountainside and leads another group of surviving villagers to capture him, Thopaga uses more magic powers to launch a massive rockslide that devastates his attackers.

Then Thopaga takes refuge for the night with an old Buddhist hermit monk, who tells the young man about Buddha.  The old monk solemnly urges Thopaga to
"Cease negative actions, cultivate positive actions, and tame your mind."
After spending the night in agony dreaming about all the suffering he has caused, Thopaga returns to Yongten Trogyal and Dharma and laments to them,
“Revenge doesn’t solve any problem.  It only creates more.”
So Yongten Trogyal decides to send Thopaga to what he believes is the most enlightened master, Marpa the Translator (aka Marpa Lotsawa).  The film ends with Thopaga setting off on that journey to Marpa in order to acquire the true compassionate enlightenment of Buddhism.


Most religions, it seems, have a major theme of vengeance to them.  There is a strong emphasis on punishing sinners, and this is called “justice”.  I once asked a friend of mine, who was a former Baptist minister, what he thought about punishment.  Isn’t punishment primarily intended as a deterrent, I asked – a threatened outcome that is intended to deter future wrongdoing?  No, he responded, punishment is “justice”, itself.  For people along this line of thinking, there is some abstract bookkeeping system in the sky that must be kept in balance, and this has nothing to do with deterrence.  A wrongful deed, they say, must be punished, full stop.  This is a response to the visceral feelings of resentment and revenge that can affect most people.  And this is what Yongten Trogyal’s powers were used for in the story – to harm one’s enemies, who are supposedly guilty in some way.  Indeed Yongten Trogyal ruefully laments at one point in the film that his powers cannot be used to save people; they are only used to exert harm.

But there are spiritual teachings that can point us in the positive directions of love and compassion, and Buddhism encompasses some of those teachings and practices.  Milarepa tells the story of a man who acquired awesome powers of vengeance-inspired retribution.  But he voluntarily renounced those powers and the path that led to acquiring them, because he knew, inside himself, that this was the wrong way to go.  He didn’t need to be told this by a teacher; the inner-god within him (“The Kingdom of God Is Within You”, following Tolstoy) led to this conclusion.

It could be said that a weakness of the film is that it focuses too much on Milarepa’s (Thopaga’s) involvement with revenge, and doesn’t cover his period of spiritual enlightenment.  But this film is unlike most films about vengeance, which typically place a great emphasis on the atrocities that have inspired the feelings of revenge.  In contrast here in Milarepa, there is relatively scant coverage of those revenge-inspiring events.  Instead, the focus is on Milarepa’s turning – his inner journey of discovery and turning away from vengeance and resentment.  And that is why this film, despite its varioous rough edges, is interesting.

Still, it would be nice for us to have a film from an authentic Tibetan Buddhist perspective covering the remaining portions of Milarepa’s story – Neten Chokling only had funds sufficient for filming the first part of Milarepa’s life.  Fortunately, there is such an account available in the form of a multimedia work consisting of static images, text, and atmospheric background music – Milarepa: Murderer and Saint [6].  This was put together by Ogyen Topgyal Rinpoche, whom I identified above as a lama and close associate of Neten Chokling (he was one of Neten Chokling’s tutors) and Khyentse Norbu.  The text presented in this work is mostly derived from the traditional Tibetan Buddhist account of Milarepa’s story, The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan [7].  From this we learn that Marpa the Translator was a very difficult and demanding master, and Milarepa’s path to enlightenment under his tutelage took a number of twists and turns in the second half Milarepa’s story.

This multimedia presentation, Milarepa: Murderer and Saint, is available on Youtube as nine linked chapters [8].  It has a contemplative mood, and it emphasizes the value and virtues of serious meditation as a path towards enlightenment and universal compassion. So I recommend it to those who are interested in this subject.
★★★ 

Notes:
  1. “Milarepa”, Wikipedia, (9 May 2018).    
  2. Dennis Schwartz, "Earnestly capturing in spirit the emergence of a holy man", Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, (11 May 2008).
  3. “Neten Chokling”, Wikipedia, (10 March 2018).   
  4. “Neten Chokling Rinpoche”, The Rigpa Shedra Wiki, (28 March 2018).   
  5. “Orgyen Tobgyal”, Wikipedia, (18 April 2018).  
  6. Ogyen Topgyal Rinpoche, “MILAREPA part 1 - 'How I met Marpa'”, Youtube, (26 September 2015).  
  7. Heruka, (Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, translator), The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan, Penguin Books, (1 February 1992).  
  8. The nine linked chapters of Milarepa: Murderer and Saint can be found on Youtube here:

Neten Chokling

Films of Neten Chokling: