Windhorse begins a bit like a PBS documentary. Shot in television-style video - which has the harsh yet glossy look one associates with documentaries - the setting is a Tibetan village where people unassumingly walk by the camera, goats are being herded and children can be seen playing. No one seems to be a central character. Or more precisely everyone is the central character. The only thing leading us to believe we are watching a story is that there is a voice-over that describes the scenario and what is about to happen. Then some Chinese policemen arrive and shoot a man who is praying.
The film cuts to modern day Tibet where we learn that the three children, all now grown, have gone their separate ways in life. Two are a brother and sister the other their cousin. They are Dolkar (Dadon) a karaoke singer in a local Tibetan club, her brother Dorjee (Jampa Kelsang) who is sullen and out-of-work and their cousin Pema (no name in credits) a Buddhist nun.
While everything seems somewhat normal in their lives what becomes quickly evident is that all of Tibetans are living under the harsh rule of the Chinese who do not respect their sovereignty or recognize their country leaders. Most particularly they do not recognize the Dalai Lama and they don't want anyone displaying photos of the Dalai Lama - who was banished from Tibet in 1959 but who today still remains the spiritual leader of most Tibetans.
The two main characters in the film are the brother and sister, Dorjee and Dolkar, both of whom live at home with their mother father and grandmother. Dolkar has just had a bit of luck and has been chosen - with the help of her Chinese boyfriend - for a record deal in which she must sing pro-Chinese songs. Dorjee, on the other hand, is frequently sought after by the Tibetan resistance movement but he has become indifferent and cynical to the struggles of his people.
Both at the crossroads of their lives they get word that their cousin Pema has been imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese authorities for protesting. Both Dorjee and Dolkar will have to look within themselves, come together with their family, make sacrifices and understand the necessity of courage and conviction within their lives and their culture in order to help their family and themselves. Faced with the impossible task of getting the word out about their cousin they recruit the help of an American tourist (Taije Silverman) with a video camera.
Director Paul Wagner and screenwriters Julia Elliott and Thupten Tsering have a straight forward agenda and that is to present to the Western world with what is going on in Tibet today. Unlike Kundun or Seven Years in Tibet which both came out about the same time - Windhorse is not about the Buddhist culture nor does it romanticize the Tibetan culture. Instead it presents a sober view of people who live under the oppressive communist Chinese government.
Windhorse - whose title refers to Tibetan prayer flags - was shot on video for a couple of reasons. First is because of the production's small budget but too the filmmakers used video because they wanted to shoot quickly in areas of the world where they didn't want to be under the scrutiny of the Chinese authorities. While most of the film was shot in Katmandu, Nepal some of it was clandestinely shot in Lhasa, Tibet where the filmmakers had to pretend they were tourists to get their shots.
The cast is made up mostly of non-actors who fit their roles perfectly with a natural grace that a professional actor would have to force. Because of this nothing seems out of place in the film - or more precisely even though the acting is not award winning it is much more believable because everyone seems as though they are playing themselves. Due to this it makes it a bit easier to understand the struggles of the Tibetan people. And even though the story has an obvious plot line it is still effective and engaging from beginning to end. It also might be called a necessary film because it dares to confront and push a political issue that often gets lost in the romanticism and beauty most people associate with Tibet.
The movie was shot on video but not Hi-Def or the kind used today in commercial films. The image is bright, sharp and clear. It has the 'video look', which many associate with home movies or with cheap movies. However, one gets used to it after a while and one reason is because it is not a cheaply made movie.
Audio is in Tibetan, Chinese and English voice-over stereo. Not a stellar audio track but good enough and it sounds fine.
There is an Audio commentary track with Paul Wagner and co-writers Julia Elliott and Thupten Tsering. The commentary is very good and provides a good background to the shooting of the film. We learn that many of the extras have experiences that reflect the film's story and too that Julia Elliot's real life is incorporated into the story [an American with a video camera comes to the aid of the family] and was in some ways the beginning of the project. Next is a behind-the-scenes featurette that is about fifteen minutes long and covers a lot of ground that the commentary covers. Next is a five minute production still gallery that uses dissolves. There is also an original theatrical trailer and some other New Yorker trailers.
Windhorse is a strong movie about the struggles of a Tibetan family, which in turn are the same struggles that a nation has dealt with for a couple generations under harsh Chinese rule. Shot on video the film has an immediacy that film does not achieve. That's to say it feels more real. The extras are good and help give background on not only the film but the recent history of Tibet and it's people. Highly Recommended.