Award-Winning Filmmaker Lhapal Gyal on the State of Tibetan Cinema

Award-Winning Filmmaker Lhapal Gyal on the State of Tibetan Cinema

We recently caught up with Lhapal Gyal to discuss the development of the Tibetan film industry and audiences’ lust for exoticism

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Sep 21, 2022 3 mins read

Alternative Visual Archive is a monthly RADII column that spotlights films that interrogate ‘otherness’ and/or strive for alternatives to mainstream narratives. This month, we introduce Lhapal Gyal and speak with the award-winning filmmaker about the current state of Tibetan cinema.


A vanguard of Tibetan new wave cinema, filmmaker Pema Tseden is internationally renowned for exploring subjectivity and modernity in Tibetan culture. His oeuvre has sparked considerable interest in Tibetan cinema while paving the path for a handful of disciples, among whom tricenarian Lhapal Gyal is gaining significant recognition.


Hailing from Hainan Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Northwest China’s Qinghai province, Gyal was motivated to study film after watching Tseden’s directorial debut, The Silent Holy Stones (2005), in high school. The two eventually connected, and Tseden encouraged Gyal to immerse himself in literature, the backbone of filmmaking.


The aspiring filmmaker then gained the opportunity to cut his teeth by working as an assistant director while Tseden was filming Tharlo (2015).


Lhapal Gyal


Then, in 2018, Gyal made waves with his debut feature film, Wangdrak’s Rain Boots, which was selected for the Berlin International Film Festival’s Generation section (films touching on youth culture). The film also earned him the title of ‘Best Director’ at the 12th edition of the FIRST International Film Festival in 2018.


The hour-and-a-half-long film sketches out the inner world of an introverted child living in a Tibetan village and his deep desire for rain after receiving a pair of rain boots. However, the child’s yearning for rain runs in opposition to the desire of other villagers, who want clear skies for the harvest.


Wangdrak’s Rain Boots’ minimalist aesthetics and narrative, marked by a childlike innocence, are reminiscent of Iranian classics such as Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987) and Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997).


Lhapal Gyal Best Director

Lhapal Gyal is awarded the title of ‘Best Director’ at the 12th edition of the FIRST International Film Festival. Image courtesy of the festival


Released this year, Gyal’s second feature, The Great Distance Delivers Crane, also revolves around a child, namely a boy from rural Tibet.


In the film, the protagonist and his sister embark on a quest to escort a black-necked crane, which has swayed from its migration path, back to its habitat. A quasi-road movie, The Great Distance Delivers Crane follows the underaged duo as they overcome obstacles while traversing the Tibetan Plateau’s peerless landscape.

Gyal, whose third feature, Kong and Jigme, recently premiered at the 2022 Beijing International Film Festival, epitomizes a rising group of Tibetan auteurs who are conveying contemporary Tibetan society’s unmediated experiences and sociocultural phenomena. The posse spans multiple generations, but each member is more or less affiliated with Tseden.


RADII caught up with Gyal in the city of Xining, Qinghai province, last month at the world premiere of The Great Distance Delivers Crane at the 2022 FIRST International Film Festival. We spoke with him about the development of the Tibetan film industry, audiences’ lust for exoticism, and more:


RADII: Would you care to share some of your observations on the rise of Tibetan cinema in recent years?

Lhapal Gyal: I think Tibetan cinema has certainly gained attention and discussion. But relatively speaking, it remains a niche. As you can see, its subject matters are homogenous, except for Jigme Trinley’s film (One and Four, 2021).


Tibetan cinema is a new concept, after all. In the entire 100-and-more-year history of Chinese cinema, shaoshu minzu (ethnic minority) cinema, particularly Tibetan cinema, is less frequently broached. And the whole concept of Tibetan cinema just surfaced recently, so there are still a lot of topics to be explored and filmed.


Lhapal Gyal


Some people have made the ridiculous claim that there is nothing new for filmmakers to explore regarding Tibetan cultural, religious, or environmental themes. Are there still stories left to be told?

LG: A lot. First of all, many period dramas have been produced focusing on the heartland [of China], but Tibetan period dramas have never been done.


Tibetan land boasts a large amount of mythology, and the epic of King Gesar alone is composed of a significant body of texts and folklore that can be adapted into films. Apparitions from folk stories can be subjects in Tibetan films, and gangster films can also be set in Tibet, to name a few examples.


Do you think the surge of interest in Tibetan cinema can be attributed to audiences’ lust for exoticism?

LG: Partially, yes, as some viewers might seek a kind of spectacle. But primarily, it’s because Tibetan films are enjoyed by arthouse film buffs, who are the main audience.


Lhapal Gyal


Tibetan films have caught international and domestic attention, but how are they received in Tibetan regions?

LG: Tibetan-speaking regions such as Qinghai and Tibet didn’t have film studios in the past, so the film industry has been underdeveloped. On top of that, there traditionally haven’t been many cinemas in Tibetan-speaking places, which are predominately remote areas.


Many people — especially nomads — have no idea what cinemas even are, to be honest. Most of their media consumption revolves around mobile phones and televisions. But as information is getting more accessible than before, and social media platforms like Douyin [China’s version of TikTok] gain popularity, people are gradually realizing that they can go to cinemas.


What are your thoughts on the development of Tibet’s film industry in recent years?

LG: It has developed and is much better than before. But it’s outdone by the film industries in regions like Beijing and Shanghai. For example, we can hardly finish processes like post-production in Tibet and must travel to the heartland to complete this stage. We also do a lot of fundraising in the big cities to subsidize the Tibetan film sector.


The above interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity


All images courtesy of Lhapal Gyal unless otherwise stated

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