I recently read an article about an 11-year-old boy from Boston who moved to India after Buddhist monks there identified him to be the reincarnation of a Lama who died in Tibet nearly 800 years ago. This story begs the question: how are enlightened old souls discovered if they transmigrate? Director Nati Baratz helps provide some answers in the remarkable film Unmistaken Child.
This documentary follows the 4-year journey of Tenzin Zopa, a gentle 28-year-old monk tasked with finding the reincarnation of his renowned Tibetan master (Lama Konchog) who died in 2001. Tenzin is provided a variety of clues: there are signs in the cremation ashes and a Taiwanese astrologer predicts that Lama Konchog will return to a region with the letters TS and be born to a father whose name begins with an A. Equipped with these leads, Tenzin searches for his master throughout the astonishingly beautiful countryside of Nepal, providing a rare glimpse into the ancient traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
While on his quest, Tenzin inquires about children between the ages of 1 to 1 ½ in the hopes of finding a candidate who can pass rigorous, ritualistic tests (recognizing favorite belongings from the previous life and sometimes recognizing people they knew before) meant to distinguish enlightened beings. When a rosy, chubby toddler in the Tsum Valley is found watering a tree planted by Lama Konchog and correctly identifies the monk's prayer beads and hand drum, it's the beginning of juxtaposed tranformations. The cherub embarks on a new life to regain his previous knowledge and reduce the world's suffering; Tenzin emerges from a devoted disciple who feels unworthy and unsure about finding his master, to become a confident mentor who is prepared to teach his reborn, spiritual father.
Some viewers may be frustrated that Baratz doesn't tackle certain issues (for example: what happens if the toddler grows up and - having sacrificed family and traditional childhood for monastic life - comes to regret or rebel against his circumstances?) However, I found the film's gaps to be trumped by the story's compelling arc - the tremendous devotion Tenzin has for Lama Konchog, the deep grief following his death, and Tenzin's commitment to finding and serving his master again.
This release from Oscilloscope Laboratories, which runs 104 minutes, is housed on a single DVD with a cardboard outer case.
Unmistaken Child is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1 aspect ratio). The image is soft and suffers from mild interlacing, but the colors are vibrant and the cinematography is breathtaking. There are some static shots, but most scenes are comprised of shaky hand-held camera movements. Optional English subtitles are appropriately sized, spaced, and placed.
This release features exceptional 5.1 surround and stereo audio options for the mixed English/Tibetan/Nepalese/Hindi soundtrack. The score is riveting, and I felt transported to the Himalayas by the cadence of chanting monks and singing birds in the background.
The extras include trailers for 12 Oscilloscope Laboratories releases and 8 additional scenes from Unmistaken Child including:
o Tenzin and others at the Sera Monastery in South India participate in a night prayer. (1:35)
o Tenzin and the child arrive in Hydrabad and prepare to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has confirmed the reincarnation. (6:25)
o The child receives a teaching lesson from Tenzin and other monks. (2:40)
o Tenzin visits a family and is honored to bless and name one of their children. (2:00)
o Several monks debate the separation between mind and body. (1:55)
o Tenzin meets with Denma Locho Rinpoche to discuss the hidden phenomena of reincarnation. (2:58)
o Tenzin drafts a letter explaining the circumstances surrounding the reincarnation of his master. (1:38)
o Tenzin rescues an ant wondering on his prayer book. (2:42)
The DVD also comes with a brief essay on reincarnation by Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman.
Unmistaken Child provides an extraordinary view of reincarnation rituals within Tibetan Buddhism. The film may not convince audiences of transmigration, but it's highly recommended for its sharing of a faith's intriguing traditions and for revealing the tender compassion and devotion of its followers.