So far away, yet close to home
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Aug 19, 2011
An expanse of grassland in Eastern Tibet earns its name, Wu-Zui ("five-most"), as the highest, coldest, poorest, largest and most remote stretch of China's Sichuan Province. But the story that unfolds there during the documentary "Summer Pasture" - the tale of a nomadic family of three during the summer of 2007 - is warm and surprisingly cheery.
The success of a documentary so often hinges on the choice of subjects as much as the topic, and directors Lynn True and Nelson Walker hit the jackpot with Yama, Locho and their unnamed infant daughter. While the baby girl provides the kind of chubby-cheeked adorableness to melt even the coldest heart, her parents are charming and honest characters that make yak herding in the remote sprawling steppe of China feel utterly relatable.
Interviews intersperse scenes of day-to-day life, offering insights into why the two continue their nomadic lifestyle when so many of their peers have fled to cities. As the movie opens, Yama is in the field near her makeshift home lugging a massive basket filled with yak manure that she spreads across the ground with her hands to dry out for later use. Locho calls her "the generator," though the term "workhorse" seems equally apt as she flits from dumpling-making to child care to cleaning with a tireless constancy. For all her hard work, not to mention the kinds of misfortunes that fall under the category of parent's worst nightmare, she retains her smile with a steadfast graciousness.
The illiterate Locho, meanwhile, spends his days herding yaks. He sports a turquoise earring and takes meticulous care of his appearance, when he isn't speaking in proverbs, which only adds to the feeling that Yama is both the brains and the brawn behind this operation. Locho reveals that his inclination toward womanizing tiptoed beyond his wedding day, and yet the two managed to work through the rough patches. Their story is one of sweet imperfection, and the highlights of the film are often found in the couple's charming, teasing repartee. It's these moments that feel so familiar, as Yama rebukes her husband for not knowing how to properly feed their daughter, or Locho reminisces about their early relationship, which was far from love at first sight.
The setting works in the movie's favor, as the mountainous region provides both a harsh reality and a stunning backdrop, and the filmmakers make the most of it; there are shots of shadowy yaks standing in front of a muted skyline at dawn and Yama, dressed in black, cutting a clean line across a snowy plain.
But what's especially notable is the story's careful pacing. The big revelations are sprinkled throughout the movie, creating a quiet momentum that makes the workaday slog consistently compelling.
Contains brief nudity. In Tibetan with English subtitles.