The Common Good
January-February 1998

Tibet or Not Tibet

by Rose Marie Berger | January-February 1998

Hollywood visits China.

In October China’s teflon president Jiang Zemin did a quick march through the symbols of American democracy, including a brief stop at Independence Hall to see the Liberty Bell. However, Thomas Jefferson’s ringing indictment against subjugation of citizens seems to have slid benignly off Jiang’s back. At the same time, with the release of the films Seven Years in Tibet, Red Corner, and Kundun, Hollywood has become Dalai-wood!

Heinrich Harrer’s biography, Seven Years in Tibet, veers dangerously close to the newest in Nazi-chic films. Harrer (Brad Pitt) was an Austrian mountain climber bent on putting the flag of the Third Reich on the top of any mountain they would let him climb. In 1939, Harrer leaves his pregnant wife to scale 26,600-foot Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas. By the time the trek team descends (without making it to the top), Britain has entered the war against Germany; and the climbers, now enemy aliens, are carted off to a prisoner-of-war camp in India. After a few years of regular attempts to escape, Harrer and trek leader Peter Aufchnaiter (David Thewlis) foil the Brits and hightail it back into the Himalayas, eventually to the forbidden and mysterious city of Lhasa in Tibet.

Even with Jean-Jacques Annaud’s expansive direction and sharp cinematography, the show is slow until Shangri La. Brad Pitt doesn’t carry the conversion force necessary to go from "good Nazi" to "spiritually enlightened one" no matter how hard he tries.

Now, with those caveats, Seven Years in Tibet is a religious experience—a kind of Buddhist evangelism that gives accurate critique of our Westernized spirituality. Bhutanese actor Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk radiates joy as the 14-year-old Dalai Lama who befriends Harrer. Lhakpa Tsamchoe pokes fun at the foreigners with her gentle insight as she portrays a tailor, friend, and eventually wife of Aufchnaiter. "You admire the man who pushes himself to the top at any cost," she says to Harrer. "We admire the man who abandons all ego."

Not only do the well-crafted dialogue, intricately detailed costumes, and massive backdrop of the Himalayas take us directly to the heart of Tibet, so does the tremendous musical score. John Williams weaves together a number of original chants by Tibetan Buddhist lamas with the deft thread of the cello of Yo Yo Ma. The effect is high worship. Since Buddhists believe that simply experiencing the vibrations of holy chanting can cleanse and heal the soul, thousands of moviegoers may be getting more than they paid for.

WHILE SEVEN YEARS in Tibet gives the novice a rudimentary history lesson in Chinese-Tibetan relations, Red Corner, written by Robert King, is pure fiction. Since lead actor Richard Gere is a major supporter of Tibetan independence and a friend of the Dalai Lama, one might think that Red Corner would be straight China-bashing propaganda. In fact, it is a classic American whodunit set in Beijing.

Slick telecommunications negotiator Jack Moore (Richard Gere) swings into the imperial city to put the final crunch on a major satellite deal. Unfortunately, his German competitors are making side bets and plotting to get Moore out of the picture. In an amazingly simple setup, Moore flirts in a nightclub with Hong Ling, a stunning model and artist. Early the next morning, Hong Ling is dead in Moore’s hotel room, and he is dragged off to incarceration in an infamous Chinese prison. Motto: Leniency for those who confess. Any attempt to contact the U.S. Embassy or the ambassador at this point is "politically inconvenient."

While Moore sits in his own private hellhole contemplating his "crimes," the true hero of the story emerges—Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling), the court-appointed lawyer. With the massacre at Tiananmen Square fresh in her mind and the re-education camps of the Cultural Revolution shaping her childhood memories, she is a woman battling her own silence and complicity. Jack Moore’s innocence is the wind that finally stirs her long still bamboo. Her fight for his freedom is ultimately her fight for her own voice, and the choice over when and how she will use it.

The film’s final critique is pretty evenhanded against the cut-throat, inhumane world of international capitalism and the repressive centralized idolatry of the almighty Communist Party. In the end though (without spoiling the whodunit), Moore and Shen offer each other the best of both worlds.

Escape from Dalai-wood to the real world of a people’s struggle to survive is clearly in order. While media-glitz is good for international politics and hopefully helps the Tibetan cause, it is but a passing shadow to the spiritual depths of the real Dalai Lama and his struggle to save his people and their culture. For a much more politically adept and spiritually in-depth look at Tibet today, see Martin Scorcese’s Kundun on the life of the Dalai Lama and read the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. No fast food formulas here; these indeed are feasts.

Seven Years in Tibet. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Released by Tri-Star, 1997.

Red Corner. Directed by Jon Avnet. Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1997.

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