"Travellers & Magicians" is the first feature film ever made in Dzongkha, a language spoken by some 160,000 people in the Himalayan nation of Bhutan. It is also the first feature to be shot entirely in the pristine, unspoiled beauty of that country. Little wonder this area was the inspiration for Shangri-La in "Paradise Lost."
But Dondup (Tsewang Dandup) doesn't consider it paradise. Having recently moved to a remote village from the big city and taken a government job, he finds he is bored and unsatisfied there. He smokes cigarettes and listens to Western rock 'n' roll and anxiously awaits word from his friend who has already moved to America. When the letter finally comes, Dondup leaves the village for Thinphu, and from there he will proceed to the United States. Why, you can do anything you want there, and make more money at it!
He misses the one bus that passes the outskirts of the village and must wait for another ride. Hitchhiking appears to be an acceptable means of transportation, as there is also an elderly apple salesman (Ap Dochu) and a Buddhist monk (Sonam Kinga) waiting alongside him. They are bemused by Dondup's disdain for village life and by his fervent, outspoken desire to find something better in the West.
The wise monk tells him a story, which we see in enacted in the imagination of the film. It's about a young man named Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji) who has been sent to magic school but who finds it boring and unfulfilling. He, too, wants to flee his small village and seek his fortune. He wanders into the woods and finds an isolated house where an old man and his beautiful young wife Deki (Deki Yangzom) live. Slightly injured, Tashi remains with them for a few days to recuperate, the few days turning into weeks as he becomes smitten with Deki. He no longer just wants a better life than his small village can provide; he wants HER.
Writer/director Khyentse Norbu, whose first effort was the cute but unmemorable "The Cup," shows promise with his sophomore effort. The natural beauty of Bhutan is spotlighted constantly, and if all of it feels necessarily "foreign" to a Western viewer, the story-within-a-story is downright otherworldly, shot with partial color and bleary, dreamlike cinematography.
In the end we are warned against the dangers of dissatisfaction, of the falsehood that the grass is greener on the other side. The parallel stories are simple, the destinations are unimportant, the acting is un-showy, but the movie has a certain power to it. Like "The Cup," it will probably not be long remembered, but it charms and entertains in the moment, at least.
Video: The film's 1.85:1 aspect ratio is preserved, with the English subtitles removable if you happen to speak Dzongkha. (Really! It's a language!) The beautiful scenery of Bhutan -- which director Khyentse Norbu says in the behind-the-scenes doc is the star of the film -- comes through nicely in the digital transfer (though it's non-anamorphic, so it's not as nice is it could be).
Audio: Your basic Dolby Digital 2.0. The film is not particularly sound-oriented, so this is adequate.
Extras: "Story from Bhutan: The Making of 'Travellers & Magicians'" is a 28-minute documentary that tells us a little about Bhutan (population of 700,000, sandwiched between China and India, likes long walks on the beach, etc.), as well as about the director of the film, whose previous movie was the much-liked "The Cup." Also in the extras is a six-minute on-the-set segment featuring lots of photos and footage of between-takes merriment Finally, the theatrical trailer is included, as well as an ad for "Shortcut to Nirvana," a documentary about Kumbh Mela, a gathering held in India every 12 years.
This isn't a great film, but it is a nice one, a lovely-looking, pleasant-minded movie. It may be a good addition to your collection if you're smitten with the gorgeous scenery and exotic culture of this part of the world, as it captures all of that very well.
(Note: Most of the "movie review" portion of this article comes from the review I wrote when the movie was released theatrically. I have re-watched the film in the course of reviewing the DVD, however.)