Sat, 11 Nov 2000

'The Cup' sees no escape from modernization

By Hartoyo Pratiknyo

JAKARTA (JP): In the yard of a remote little Buddhist monastery of Tibetan refugees in the Himalaya foothills in Bhutan, monks in crimson robes are busy playing soccer with an empty Coca-Cola can. Soccer graffiti is scribbled on the monastery walls and pictures of World Cup soccer stars are plastered on the wall of one the rooms inside the monastery.

Buddhist monks? Playing soccer? Using a Coca-Cola can? World Cup soccer fever in remote Bhutan?

Correct. The Cup, or Phorpa in the original Tibetan language, which has the honor of being chosen to close the Second Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest) at the Usmar Ismail Film Center (PPHUI) on Jl. Rasuna Said in South Jakarta on Sunday, Nov. 12, is in every sense of the word an extraordinary movie indeed.

The movie pursues the audacious attempts of one mischievous 14-year-old cheeky novice with a big mouth and a heart of gold, named Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), the central figure and the star of the movie, to win the abbot's permission to install a satellite dish on top of the monastery's roof so that the monks won't have to sneak out during the night to watch the 1998 World Cup soccer finals. Complications, mostly humorous, abound.

The film was written and directed by Khyentse Norbu -- more widely known as H.E. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche -- who is not only a Tibetan Buddhist monk who lives in Bhutan, but is thought to be the third incarnation of the highly revered 19th century Tibetan saint and religious reformer Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. Thirty-nine years of age, he holds the throne at the Dzongsat Monastery in Derge in eastern Tibet and is spiritual director of two important meditation centers, one in Bhutan and another one in Sikkim.

Quite an exalted position and a hard one to match, one might say, for a screenplay writer and film director. And quite a achievement, too, for a director who didn't even see a movie until he was 19 and whose only cinematic education consisted of an apprenticeship under Bernardo Bertolucci during the filming of Little Buddha.

The Cup, however, is no Little Buddha. It does not proselytize or extol either Tibet or Buddhism. It isn't anywhere like other films about either Tibet or Buddhism that Indonesians have had the opportunity to see in this country. Take, for example, Martin Scorsese's Kundun or Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet. In all of those, Buddhist monks are always serious and rarely smile. The Cup, on the contrary, makes us see them as real, young people who take pleasure in playing pranks on each other.

All the actors in The Cup are real monks of the Dzongsat Monastery in Derge. Norbu had valid reasons to make it so. First of all there was the consideration of cost. The nearest filming equipment he could afford was in Australia. Another reason, and perhaps the more important one, could be Norbu's regard for the works of Vittorio de Sica, a pioneer of the Italian neorealist movement who used light equipment and nonprofessionals to achieve an effect that comes close to that of a documentary film.

But what is the connection between Buddhism and soccer? "I'm not sure this is necessarily the point," Norbu says in an interview he gave in New York. "I see The Cup as an insider's look of the touchstones of Tibetan culture and society, especially now, when they face the insecurities of exile and the challenges of a modern world. But this isn't just a Tibetan issue. It is something faced by traditional cultures everywhere."

True enough. The Cup may have no profound message to tell us. But one thing it teaches us, at the very least, is that there is no escaping the advent of modernity or globalization. It is for each nation and each culture to find the way that is most suitable to it and to adjust itself to life in a global village.