River (Gtsngbo) plays out a family’s complex relationship against the panoramic but sequestered mountains of Tibet. Director Sonthar Gyal anchors his film with stunning child acting prodigy Yangchan Lhamu, who takes us on a story arc of a jealous child rejected from her suckling habit as her mother bears a new child in her womb, while being bullied by her peers for her unpopular father, who rejects his own father – a locally-respected Rinpoche.
As the young Yangchan navigates her way through her childhood, we witness her anxieties play out, and sometimes made worse, by the tense relationships in her family. Her father (Guru Tsedan) is a stubborn silent figure who cares for Yangchan but finds her innocently soul-cutting questions hard to take. Her mother (Regzin Drolma) is comparatively much warmer, but also finds her antics tiring. In one scene, she even resorts to smearing her breast with charcoal from the hearth, showing a shocked Yangchan how her constant need to suckle is causing her mother physical harm. Needless to say, the poor Yangchan finds this adult world a bewildering unreasonable place.
Yangchan makes a friend with an orphaned lamb when her father decides to head out to the plains for some premature herding – but eventually loses it to the herd when it grows up. As everything she holds dear, including her grandfather who seemingly dotes on her, seems to be taken away by her parents, rejection leads her to some gullible acts.
The story eventually unfolds to make sense, giving motivation to actions. As the starkly stunning Tibetan landscape bears witness to the family’s drama, we too slowly begin to realise the complexities of relationships. Against barley fields, smoking chimneys, a flapping yurt and a thawing river, growing sympathy for all gives a luscious depth to this film study of understanding and forgiveness.
River (Gtsngbo) has won critical acclaim in several festivals including Asian New Talent Award – Best Actress at the 18th Shanghai International Film Festival, garnered by young Yangchan.
Thank you to the organisers of Singapore Chinese Film Festival for the opportunity.