Reviewed by Lau Chee Nien
Director: Pan Nalin
Cast: Shawn Ku, Christy Chung
Country: India, France
Year Released: 2001
Runtime: USA 138 min, Germany 145 min
The Plot in Brief: A young monk experiences sexual awakening, and renounces his life in the monastery to experience live away from it for the first time in his life.
The local theatrical version is listed as 120 minutes although two other longer versions are also listed on Internet Movie Database (IMDb) - one at 145 minutes, and another at 138 minutes. These were, I presume, versions screened at film festivals. That aside, I do wonder what might have been trimmed from the commercial release version.
And I am curious about what might have been trimmed out. Because parts of the editing in the film were uneven. And the film felt long. In particular, the beginning scenes. I do wonder what the extra 25 minutes left out was - grass blowing in the wind? Scenes from the monastery? Or some sex scene?
Frankly speaking, the sex scenes were my most favorite things in this film. Shawn Ku and Christy Chung locking lips provided some of the hottest moments on screen for me. And what was that with the Kamasutra stunt later on in the film? I don't think I'd try that one myself...
Anyway, the main problem I find with this film is the narration. Events, plots and issues raised in the film do not connect well, tend to be flat, and the ending lacked a punch which I felt was not there because I did not care for the protagonist at the end.
The pacing of the film is perhaps a little too slow, especially at the beginning. The pace picked up somewhat once the protagonist begins life away from the monastery. The first part already failed to engage me, so the second part had to work harder to sustain my interest. But the second part also failed for me because was superficial and flat. Samsara is an epic in the sense that it covers a long period of time in a character's life. It is ambitious and tries to show all the parts that make up the sum of the protagonist's spiritual quest. Not an easy task, as the parts may end up appearing shallow. And Samsara falls into this trap.
Were there good points to this film? Yes. Visually, there is the beautiful Himalayan landscape of Ladakh to behold. There are also postcard depictions of the people living on the land. In terms of narrative, the director manages to convey the purpose of most scenes with clarity and simplicity. He brings life to the moments in these scenes. Therefore, it is truly unfortunate that the strengths do not link up to form a well-knitted story.
In terms of performance, Shawn Ku had a difficult part to play. I think he did not pull it off al that well. Furthermore, the script provided very few moments for the audience to understand or like his character. I also felt that the actor lacked a strong screen presence in this film. Christy Chung was more than adequately competent, but she was not playing the protagonist.
I went to watch this film with little expectations but still found it lacking. It did however, provide me with lots to think about after watching it. It is not a bad film. The technical aspects of the film are adequate and competent. The director appears to have a clear story to tell. It is just that the story does not offer enough depth. And the narrative was also not executed in a manner that infused the film with strength.
Verdict: Not Really Recommended.