The Cup,
a.k.a., Phörpa
directed by Khyentse Norbu
(Fine Line, 1999)

Encamped high on a mountainside in India, displaced Buddhist monks go about their daily prayers surrounded by the jagged peaks, weighed down by the Chinese government and upholding their faith until Tibet is free once more. The monks' sonorous chanting buzzes in the mountain air, their brilliant saffron and maroon robes shift in the wind, drying on wash lines, collecting the golden light and incense through their elaborate temple compound.

But what's that undercurrent behind the youngest monks' doors? Why are they tempted to sneak down the mountainside after dark, the gate creaking behind them and gravel crunching under their bicycle tires?

It's the siren song of the World Cup.

Khyentse Norbu's 1999 film The Cup, filmed on location in India, sparkles with an energy and wisdom that comes both from the story and the way it's put on film.

Based on true events, The Cup no doubt will be the first film you see in Bhutanese. It's a lush look at a way of life unaltered for centuries, even though the monasteries have been pillaged, moved, rebuilt and harassed. But it's also a sly look at the similarities of sports fans everywhere, and the ebb and flow of tensions as an ever-changing world whirls around a culture of substance, of scholarship and religion.

Young Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro) is a regular little delinquent -- not malicious, but a fledgling monk whose religion may be Buddhism but whose real passion is soccer. Under his golden wrap he wears a homemade "Ronaldo 9" shirt in honor of his Brazilian sports hero. He makes little finger puppets during prayer. On his errands to town, he buys magazines full of game photos, which are pasted up all over his bedroom wall as if he were a 9-year-old Cal Ripken fan in Baltimore.

The geko -- who serves the monastery abbot as sort of the youngest monks' principal -- is a closet soccer fan, too, we come to learn. Yet he cannot tolerate, for discipline reasons, the boys slipping off to the nearest village, where they pay a few rupees to watch the middle-of-the-night matches televised from France.

The Cup is a gently humorous look at how these generations -- the exiled abbot (Lama Chonjor), the geko (Orgyen Tobgyal) and the monks -- find a balance between the religion of Buddhism, the religion of soccer and the loyalties to both.

Filmed in Bhutanese on location at the Peme Awam Choegar Gyurme Ling Monastery in India, The Cup walks a tightrope between that exoticism and its universal message with ease. There are jolts of the outside -- as the film opens, the monks are playing a pickup game of soccer with a Coke can; two prospective monks make a harrowing escape from Chinese authorities; the abbot keeps his trunks packed in case the Chinese leave Tibet and he can return home.

But the heart of The Cup, as much as its broader messages are handled delicately, is in its details: the monks' delicate, long-nailed fingers entwined in prayer, the flower picked and placed on the monastery tractor, the careful preparation of butter tea. And through it all, the elder monks' struggle to understand the World Cup frenzy that seems at first to be so foreign: The World Cup, the geko explains to the abbot, "is two civilized nations fighting over a ball."

"You must be joking," the abbot says. "So there's violence?"

"Sometimes," the geko says.

"How about sex?" the abbot asks.

"Don't worry," replies the geko. "There's no sex."

What there are in this Cannes Film Festival selection, are wonderful moments of truth and humor. And you don't need to understand Bhutanese to follow a single one of them.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 15 September 2001

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