Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Once in a while, a film comes along that is so unlike most of the mass-market fare out there, that seems so pure in its intention and storytelling, that you cannot help but to feel cleansed and grateful.
Unmistaken Child, a marvellous Israeli documentary that charts the four-year search for the reincarnate child of a notable Tibetan holy man, is one such film.
When you think about the improbability of the tale it tells, how the protégé of the deceased lama searches for his reincarnated master – and succeeds – and is captured on film during a miraculous process, you might be inclined to be cynical.
What’s more, the protégé is a decent young cine-genic monk named Tenzin Zopa, who speaks good English, and is able to convey his emotions in reality TV style.
Oh, how convenient.
Yet, this film, written and directed by Nati Baratz, does not seem manipulative, nor a part of some sort of elaborate cinematic/cosmic conspiracy.
What it presents, against a superb East-West-fusion soundtrack that helps draw you into the picture, is in effect the cycle of life, and the generosity and love that humans are capable of.
Being shot in the territories of Tibet, Nepal and India, it may seem to imply that such emotions are more easily found in the so-called “simple country folk”. But the film never seems to condescend.
In fact, it is very much made in a verite-style. Though Zopa stops to speak to the camera at times, there isn’t any jarring effect. For the most part, I watched events unfold, in wonder, and savoured every minute.
The story begins with the departure of Lama Kochong, who passes at age 84 in 2001. His disciple, Tenzin Zopa, speaks tenderly of memories of the lama, as if he were a beloved father figure, and unabashedly weeps at the loss.
The authorities of the Buddhistic faith come to believe that Lama Kochong, a well-known, highly respected master, would return to the earthly realm. As is tradition, his closest disciple is tasked with seeking him out, and then guiding him through life.
There are scenes that will astound, whereby a young child, found after an exhaustive search, seems able to recognise the late Lama’s personal belongings and former dwelling.
We also get the measure of the man who is Tenzin Zopa. Early on, he admits to being privileged, but also terrified, at the prospect of having to find the child. “I’m not Buddha,” he proclaims, momentarily overwhelmed by his task.
The best moments come during the search and after the child is found.
We are privy to grand views of the rugged landscape, come face to face with the good people of these lands – for a city slicker, the peace and simplicity of life is remarkable – and learn much about Buddhist beliefs and rituals.
We also see that for all the pomp and ceremony devoted to the child, he is ultimately still a child, heartwrenchingly taken from his family, although his former disciple becomes something of a foster father, and showers him with an unconditional love.
Regardless of one’s views of religion, reincarnation, or ‘reality’ storytelling as such, Unmistaken Child will touch you and provoke keen thought, about life and its curious ways, and acts of sacrifice and love.
It is a tonic for the soul, particularly the most cynical.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
– Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III