“PATHS OF THE SOUL”
When Fact Meets Fiction
Director Zhang Yang brings documentary and fiction together in this account of a band of pilgrims who make a 2,000-kilometre journey on foot to Lhasa, the holy capital of Tibet. The film is a document about the simplicity of spiritual life on the world’s highest plateau, where the thin air makes each and every humble gesture an arduous task. This is the record of a singular real-life journey: a months-long pilgrimage, on foot, to Tibet’s holy capital.
The film follows a group of Tibetan villagers who leave their families and homes to make a “bowing pilgrimage” (laying their bodies flat on the ground after every few steps) along the 2,000-kilometre road to Lhasa. Though the pilgrims all are equally devoted to the journey, they all have different reasons: one traveler needs to cleanse bad family karma; another, a butcher, wants to wash the animals’ bloodstains from his soul; and yet another, sensing the end is near, hopes that prayers and prostrations will break the chain of cause and effect determined by his life’s actions. A lot happens during their months on the road— a baby is born, they meet fellow travelers, and they are put to the test by harsh snowstorms and physical fatigue. However, can deter them from their ultimate goal including the threat of death which is a very real danger in this high altitude where a common cold can take one’s life.
As you watch, it is important to remember that this is a fictionalized portrayal of an actual event even though Zhang chose to shoot in documentary style, over the course of an entire year, with non-professional actors and no script. The result is a film that mesmerizes like no other. We find ourselves caught up in a rhythm that bears witness to these very real actions of dedication on the winding roads of Tibet.
The journey is one of redemption, faith, and devotion. A group of Tibetan villagers leave their families and homes in the small village of Nyima to make the pilgrimage. They united in their remarkable devotion, each of the travelers embarks on this almost impossible journey for very personal reasons. The photography is stunning and the journey pulls us in totally as we watch a study of faith unlike any other and that inspires us to think about our own life journeys. I suppose we can call this a road movie but there has never been a road movie quite like this.
This is so much more than simply a long walk down a national highway. This is an act of Buddhist devotion requires participants to prostrate themselves every few yards while trucks and cars zoom past. It is a stunning study in faith and spirituality that will inspire many viewers to think about big and small questions of life.
Even though the film offers no comment on the touchy topic of Tibetan political history, it’s important to note that the onscreen title of “Paths of the Soul” is shown in Tibetan script, and is preceded by the official seal of China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. What makes this significant is that many Chinese films with religious and spiritual themes have been disapproved at the official level.
Simplicity is the key to every aspect of the movie. Zhang keeps his camera at a distance and there are few close-ups. Zhang gently shows how Buddhist beliefs and practices are woven into every facet of life in a remote village in Mangkang County, part of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. It seems perfectly natural when Nyima (Nyima Zadui) and his uncle, Yang (Yang Pei), have a very relaxed conversation and decide the time is right for a pilgrimage to Lhasa. For Yang, the trip is especially important: His brother died before being able to make the journey, and Yang himself has never traveled beyond his village.
Soon there are eleven people ready to make the journey and we never have any question about the motivations of the pilgrims. Personal spiritual fulfillment is just part of the process: The higher goal is to pray for the well-being and happiness of others. For young male participants Rigzin (Rigzin Jigme) and Mu Qu (Mu Qu), the trip to Lhasa is very much about honoring two people who died while building a house in the village.
I must admit that even though I took a few courses in religion in college, I was totally unfamiliar with the actual procedure of this particular pilgrimage and I found it to be amazing to see the devotion here.
The pilgrims wear long aprons made of animal skin and protective wooden boards affixed to palms of hands for when they dive to the ground. Following this the pilgrims touch the earth with their foreheads and clap the boards together to complete the ritual. Through rain, snow and blistering heat, and at altitudes of 12,000 feet, the seven-month trek continues.
Opposite the slow progress and physically harsh nature of the pilgrimage are the illuminating and inspiring stops along the way. In a lovely sequence, the group is given shelter by a kind old farmer and repay him by plowing his barley fields. The birth of a baby is incredibly touching, and there’s a positively exquisite scene in which the group dance and sing while camped on a riverbank that is visually gorgeous.
The group has financial problems just short of Lhasa. With pragmatism to match their devotion, they simply stop for a while to work as laborers and car-wash attendants before pressing on to the final destination. Sequences in Lhasa include beautifully filmed visits to sacred temples and fascinating conversations with holy men.
Many who see this film will experience a sense of discovery and wonder as the journey moves forward and I should mention that this is not an advertisement for Buddhist recruitment. Cinematographer Guo Daming delivers any number of beautifully framed wide shots showing the 11 hardy devotees as they make their way across landscapes varying from dusty and desolate plains to beautiful green pastures and forests. There is no music score and this punctuates the film and its message of striving for serenity and peacefulness.