DIRECTOR: Pan Nalin | WRITER: Tim Baker, Pan Nalin | CAST: Shawn Ku, Christy Chung, Neelesha BaVora, Lhakpa Tsering, Tenzin Tashi, Jamayang Jinpa, Sherab Sangey, Kelsang Tashi, Tsepak Tsangpo | India/Italy/France/Germany
At its core, Pan Nalin’s spectacularly shot Samsara is the taut and simply told story of a young Buddhist monk who’s torn between the spiritual and the sensual, between the monastery he’s lived in since he was 5 years old and life on the outside as an ordinary man. After spending three years, three months, and three days in isolated meditation, Tashi (Shawn Ku) returns to his monastery but it is readily apparent that he is still gripped by samsara — “the world of appearances and endless flux, including all aspects of becoming and death; cycles of birth and rebirth” — that his meditation was ostensibly meant to overcome. Tashi is proud of his accomplishments and not a little vain, but most of all he’s unable to stifle sexual urges, so he decides to leave the monastery for a secular life. After all, he argues, the Buddha himself lived a secular life for 29 years before he renounced it but Tashi was never given the choice to make. Tashi’s mentor reluctantly allows him to leave, but first he poses the movie’s central question: “Which is better? To satisfy one thousand desires or to conquer just one?”
Tashi promptly enters into the stream of ordinary life and becomes a successful farmer with a wife, Pema (Christy Chung), and child, and he experiences materialism, lying, anger, lust, and all the other mental states of secular man. After a robust bit of adultery with a seasonal farm worker and on hearing the news of his former mentor’s death, Tashi decides to renounce the secular world and return to the monastery, stealing away in the middle of the night without warning or explanation. Pema confronts him on his journey back to the monastery and rhetorically but vehemently asks why no one talks about Yasodhara, the wife the Buddha left behind with their child when he stole away in the middle of the night. What is to happen to Pema, who has no choice but to stay and raise the child she and Tashi had together? Tashi is left at the end not knowing what he wants: the wife he passionately loves and the thousand desires of samsara or renunciation and entry into the monastery.
Pan Nalin may not have the lightest of touches when it comes to conveying Buddhist concepts and premises, but he’s never pedantic and he allows the action and the stunningly gorgeous visuals — the movie was shot on location in Ladakh — to impart the meaning. The acting is good for the most part, although Shawn Ku and Christy Chung are quite a bit better than that. If there’s a weak link it’s the music which is sort of washed out, Asian-inflected “World Music” stuff.