Starring Jamyang Lodro. In Tibetan with English subtitles. Rated PG. Opens Friday, November 30, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
Can there be such a thing as a Buddhist action movie? Well, one could argue that Buddhism itself, despite the contemplative imagery associated with the least dogmatic of major religions, is always about action. That is, about the congruity between thought and deed. AndMilarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint, for thousands who follow the monastic Tibetan strain, represents the place where that nexus dwells.
Born with the name Thopaga (newcomer Jamyang Lodro), Milarepa was an eleventh-century Tibetan who much as in the crucial Siddhartha saga first embraced nihilistic materialism before finding a more integrated form of enlightenment.
Shot in the spectacular Spiti Valley, where India meets Tibet, this beautifully mounted film tells the first half of the story, as the lad sees his father die and his inheritance stolen by his father's brother, who makes the uncle in Hamlet look generous. With the family land and wealth taken away, the newly widowed Kargyen (Kelsang Chukie Tethong) threatens to kill herself if Thopaga doesn't leave the canyon and seek revenge.
The plan is to study magic with a sorcerer on a distant mountaintop, and he goes even further to learn the dark art of making stones fly. He's a skilled student, but at a certain point he wonders, like most of us, if this is all there is.
The movie is a handsome debut for real-life lama Neten Chokling, who acted in The Cup and worked on the similarly toned Travellers and Musicians before filming the script he wrote with Buddhist colleague Tenzing Choyang Gyari. The plot, in the end, is just about as simple as it sounds as simple as most revenge tales, in fact. And some of the acting is rather tableaux-like. But even when the CGI work isn't quite class-A, Milarepa makes its points in ways that are more entertaining than esoteric.
If you like it, be apprised that a sequel is planned for 2009. Meanwhile, if you meet the Buddha on the road, don't actually kill him, okay?