The Open Door (Bhutan, 2018) [Aperture 2019]

I suspect that many readers will be unfamiliar with the emerging Bhutanese cinema, yet they might know the director of the short film The Open Door, Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, as the teenage actor portraying the Dalai Lama in the Brad Pitt starring drama, Seven Years in Tibet (1997). After several more acting roles, Wangchuk has turned his attention to the director’s chair, first with the feature-length film Gyalsey: Legacy of a Prince (2015), and now with a much more polished short, The Open Door.

Clocking at less than 15 minutes, this short is composed of four scenes, each set at a different stage of Pema’s and her family’s life. In the first scene, Pema has just been born, while her parents discuss the possibility of going to Lhasa, Tibet, to offer a prayer. The second scene shows Pema in her early childhood, locking herself in the house after seeing a “big monster with bright eyes” (presumably an automobile). In the third scene Pema has grown up and now has children of her own, with whom she discusses the possibility of education, something she did not have the chance to do. Lastly, the final scene shows an elderly Pema having a phone conversation with her daughter and realizing how much the world has changed in her lifetime.

Every scene of The Open Door is filmed in exactly the same way: the camera is at a low-height, immobile “tatami-style” shot as popularized by Ozu, except that here, the actors are rarely present in it. We hear their voices and occasionally see their feet as they pass across the screen, yet their faces are notably absent. The wood stove, whether lit or not, is the only common fixture on the screen.

Except for the preceding opening titles, the scenes give no context about their time and place. It is instead left to the audience to piece together the scarce references thrown in with the dialogue and discern information about the setting. For instance, we know the first scene occurs sometime in the mid to late 40s since it foreshadows the upcoming Chinese-Tibetan conflict. The second scene references the Kennedy assassination, and so forth. A mixture between concreteness and vagueness, the film gives the impression that it could be set anywhere and anytime, but without losing a semblance of national identity. In the final scene, for instance, we hear the voice of Donald Trump on the radio announcing the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, and immediately after in a seemingly unrelated newscast (Pema has switched the channel), another voice comments on the receding glaciers. Once Pema switches the channel again, the news is now about Bhutan. 

It is hard to form a rationalized opinion for films like The Open Door. Much like a work of modern poetry, you may experience it over and over, yet in the end all that prevails is a gut feeling. You either enjoy it or you don’t. Perhaps the film is nothing more than a clever exercise in minimalism, but there’s no doubt that director Wangchuck has put a something of himself in it. This alone, I think, makes The Open Door worth one’s time.

The Open Door is showing as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival & UK Tour 2019.

John Atom