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'Travellers': Simply Magical

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page WE44

THE LUMINOUS "Travellers & Magicians" reminds us that stories are the throbbing heart of human entertainment, whether they are told around campfires or in the darkness of the movie theater.

What makes Khyentse Norbu's story deeply enchanting is the titanic presence of his homeland. Bhutan shimmers with a sort of exquisite internal and external harmony. It's the rooftop of the world, and a spiritual universe unto itself. (It was the inspiration for James Hilton's Shangri-La.) And as with his precious 1999 movie, "The Cup," writer-director Norbu (said to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist master) uses only amateur actors. In keeping with his Buddhist discipline, he made production decisions based on mo, an ancient form of divination performed by lamas. He also organized pujas, Buddhist ceremonies designed to remove such psychic obstacles as demons from the filmmaking process. (You don't see these listed as below-the-line items in the average Hollywood production.)

In the company of strangers: Dondup (Tshewang Dendup, left) and Sonam (Sonam Lhamo) journey together in "Travellers & Magicians." (Prayer Flag Pictures)

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In Bhutan, Dondup (Tshewang Dendup, in reality, a producer-reporter for the Bhutan Broadcasting Service), a young man who listens to raucous western music on his boombox and has a job as a government official, is restless. He wants to immigrate to America, where he can make infinitely more money than in his village. After getting permission from his superiors to attend a religious festival in Thimphu, he plans to find a flight to the United States.

To get to Thimphu, though, Dondup must take a bus or hitch a ride along the mountain roads. This is the main method of travel in Bhutan, so he soon finds himself in the company of other travelers, including an old man (Ap Dochu) selling apples and a monk (Sonam Kinga), also on his way to the festival. Two more wayfarers join them: The beautiful, 19-year-old Sonam (Sonam Lhamo) and her father (Dasho Adab Sangye).

Waiting for a car or bus, especially one that isn't already burdened with passengers, can take days. This trip proves no exception. Dondup finds himself killing time with his companions, trading stories. The monk, well aware of Dondup's agitated agenda, tells one about Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), another young man with impatient desire. He's supposed to be studying the ancient ways of magic, but he can only think about women. Unusual circumstances bring about a life lesson: He mounts a beautiful horse, falls off and finds himself lost in the woody wilderness. He stumbles upon a solitary house where an old man named Agay (Gomchen Penjore) lives with his younger, beautiful wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom).

What happens to Tashi, and how it parallels Dondup's situation, is the magic of Norbu's movie, which was inspired by a Japanese story ("Izuni Odoriko") by Yasunari Kawabata. And magic it is. Norbu climbs to an even higher level than he did with "The Cup." Yet he hasn't lost sight of the simple verities: the imprisonment that hope, passion and dreams can become; the lilies of the field we never consider and the roses we forget to sniff; and knowing that happiness isn't necessarily around the corner, it's right here -- in St. Louis, or Kansas, or in the case of "Travellers," somewhere in Bhutan, deep in the Himalayas. To watch this movie is to be moved not only by an affecting, warmly spirited yarn, but also by the wisdom that seems to waft to us directly from those snow-capped peaks.

TRAVELLERS & MAGICIANS (Unrated, 108 minutes) -- Contains nothing objectionable. In Dzongkha with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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