Pema Tseden obituary: filmmaker who defined Tibetan cinema

As director, writer, translator and mentor, Pema Tseden, who has died aged 53, was the major figure in Tibetan film culture.

12 May 2023

By Tony Rayns

Balloon (2019)

In his 53 years, now curtailed by a heart attack apparently brought on by altitude sickness, Pema Tseden did more than anyone else to forge a modern Tibetan film culture. He directed seven completed features (an eighth, Snow Leopard, is said to be in post-production, and a ninth, Strangers, also shot) and several short films, published a wealth of fiction and essays, translated other writers between Tibetan and Chinese, and nurtured many new talents. Of course he was not alone in those fields, but he was the only artist to combine them. His films define Tibetan cinema, his writings have begun appearing in English translations (first in anthologies, then in Enticement from the State University of New York Press, 2018), and no participant in panel discussions and Q&As was more adept at asserting a Tibetan identity while staying (just) on the right side of Beijing’s censors. The loss is incalculable.

Pema Tseden

He was born to a family of nomadic herders in the Amdo region of Qinghai Province and (unusually, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution) had a Tibetan-language education, reportedly bolstered by his closeness to his grandfather, who loved Tibetan Buddhist texts. Between literary studies at Tsolho Nationalities’ Normal College and Northwest Nationalities University in Lanzhou, he worked for a time as a teacher. But his passion for film led him to Beijing, where his name was Sinicised as ‘Wanma Caidan’: he took two courses in film direction at Beijing Film Academy, the first (2002 to 2004) giving him the chance to direct shorts like the prize-winning The Grassland (2004), the second (2006 to 2009) resulting in a doctorate and the space to direct his second feature The Search (2009). He had shot his debut feature The Silent Holy Stones (2005) back in his home village; he wrote at the time that he set out to cut through the “veil of mystery” shrouding Tibetan culture and to counter the prevailing impressions that Tibet is “a Shangri-la or wilderness cut off from the outside world”. 

His two first features showed an obvious reluctance to follow commercial formulas: the framing and pacing of The Silent Holy Stones were somewhat indebted to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s early films (The Boys from Fengkuei, 1983, A Summer at Grandpa’s, 1984), and The Search was directly inspired by Abbas Kiarostami’s early features about casting non-actors, especially Through the Olive Trees (1994). Under duress, he wrote and directed one conventionally melodramatic feature, The Sacred Arrow (2014), about the rivalry between two champion archers from neighbouring villages; it did right by Tibetan traditions but looked and sounded very much like a mainstream Chinese movie. But the other four features he made – Old Dog (2011), Tharlo (2015), Jinpa (2018) and Balloon (2019) – are 100% his own, vignettes of Tibetan life under Chinese rule, all balancing social observation with conceptual and psychological mysteries in a masterly mise en scène.

The political complexities of Pema Tseden’s situation were hard for foreigners to fathom. I once shared a panel with him at King’s College in London at which he spoke cautiously about the constraints on Tibetan identity in contemporary China; he was challenged by a Chinese student from the mainland who believed every word the communist government had taught her, and he sensibly ended debate by saying they should agree to differ. On another occasion, at Busan IFF, I introduced him to a young would-be filmmaker from the Tibetan community exiled in India; their conversation lasted less than 30 seconds, presumably because the kid wanted to hear hardline opposition to Beijing. In 2019, visiting Beijing from his home in Xining, he told a New York Times journalist: “Being an artist in the system in China is difficult. But freedom is a relative concept. And this is the land I belong to.”

Jinpa (2019)

The later films all start from some small incident or situation and then skilfully tease out its repercussions and implications. Often the trigger is some tension between Tibetan and Chinese ways of thinking: the (black) market in China for Tibetan mastiffs in Old Dog, Beijing’s demand that all Tibetans should have ID cards in Tharlo, national policies about restricting family size in Balloon. But Jinpa transcends such issues: it’s a Borges-like fable about a trucker who runs over a sheep while crossing the Kekexili Plateau and finds that he shares his name with a young hitchhiker who’s on a mission to murder an enemy. The film explores Buddhist morality and notions of cyclical time, steadily undermining the bedrock realism of its observation. I suspect it will stand as Pema Tseden’s greatest film.

In latter years, he produced Tibetan-language films for several young colleagues, including A Song for You (2019, in partnership with Jia Zhangke) for the musician Dukar Tserang and Lost (2021) by Lotan. But his foremost protégé is his former cinematographer and production designer Sonthar Gyal, who has now directed four features nearly as resonant as Pema Tseden’s own.

  • Pema Tseden, 3 December 1969 to 8 May 2023
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