The Sweet Requiem (India, 2018) [Aperture, 2019]

Husband-and-wife filmmaking duo, Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, take on the politically charged issue of Tibetan immigration in their latest project, The Sweet Requiem. Set among a community of Tibetan refugees in India, the film explores the weight of guilt, anger, and sorrow that these refugees carry for their mistreated motherland. Ever since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the subsequent exile of the Dalai Lama, the relationship between China and Tibet has been contentious to say the least. The sociopolitical conditions imposed by the PRC have forced many Tibetans to follow the Lama and leave the country, creating a vast diaspora of Tibetan people around the world, with a particular concentration in the neighboring India. The film industry of Tibet has succumbed to a similar fate as it is heavily censored by the Chinese government. Films like The Sweet Requiem can only be made outside of Tibet. Even so, the filmmakers struggled to obtain funding for the film and were only able to finish it after a Kickstarter campaign. As the producers of the The Sweet Requiem state in their Kickstarter page, they felt it was their responsibility to “give a voice to the Tibetan struggle for freedom.”

Determined to keep it grounded in recent events, the script takes inspiration from the real-life incident of Nangpa La in 2006, in which Chinese guards opened fire on the Tibetan refugees travelling across the mountain pass. The incident resulted in at-least one death and several injured among the Tibetans. Filmmakers Sarin and Sonam use this as a jumping-off point to frame a more personal story, zooming in on the life and ordeal of one particular young woman.

The film’s protagonist is Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker), a Tibetan immigrant living in India, who escaped from Tibet when she was a little girl. Now in her 20s, Dolkar enjoys a relatively comfortable life in the city of Delhi. In the early scenes of the film, we see her smiling, engaging with her friends, and even taking a dance class a few days per week. She’s also an active participant in Delhi’s Tibetan community, for which she frequently organizes events that raise awareness for the cause of Tibetan liberation – a metafictional double entendre, perhaps, since that also seems to be largely the film’s purpose. Dolkar’s world is suddenly roused when a newly escaped activist from Tibet arrives in Delhi. She recognizes him as Gonpo (Jampa Kalsang Tamang), a troubling figure from her distant past.

The use of foreshadowing here works masterfully towards building suspense. The film hints to the ending right from the opening scene, thus setting the rest of the story into an explicit path which the audience must follow towards the inevitable conclusion. Like any skillful storyteller, the filmmakers know that the best kind of suspense comes from character and not plot. We are far more interested in the how, rather than the what. Juggling back and forth between two different storylines, one in the past and one in the present, the film allows the audience to always be one step ahead of the screen until almost the very end, eagerly waiting for the two worlds to collide.

We find out through numerous flashbacks that Gonpo wasn’t always the activist he is now. In the past, he used to be a paid guide the led the people fleeing Tibet through the treacherous mountain passes of Nangpa La to Nepal, trying to evade the seemingly ever-present patrols of Chinese soldiers. Gonpo was Dolkan’s and her father’s guide in their escape from Tibet, a trip that Dolkan’s father did not survive. As we find out towards the end, Gonpo is directly responsible for her father’s death, a revelation that the film builds up from the very beginning. The pay-off works because it is constantly underscored by Dolkan’s emotional investment in the mystery, lending it a deep personal weight with which the audience can identify.  

Aside from the main narrative, the film hosts a few side plots and moments that, unfortunately, don’t pan out quite as well. A sense of romantic tension looms persistently in the scenes between Dolkan and her friend Dorjee (Shavo Dorjee), yet in the end, nothing really amounts of it. Along similar lines, Gonpo’s clash with the Chinese spies never reaches the same tension as his clash with Dolkar, pushing towards a rather anticlimactic resolution. The film gambles on the audience’s last-minute sympathy for Gonpo, yet there’s hardly any time to digest his sudden change of heart.

The Sweet Requiem is partly a statement of activism, and partly a dark, Hitchcockian thriller that successfully keeps the viewers on their toes. Thus, it is not a benign film. It aims to provoke and move, if not to action, then certainly to an appreciation and better understanding for its message. The end result is inevitably preachy, though easily forgivable once you realize that the filmmakers’ heart is in the right place. 

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

John Atom