Paths of the Soul review: Blandly soothing, apolitical Buddhist ‘documentary’ quickly wears thin


Pilgrims on the 1200-mile trek through the Himalayas to Lhasa in Paths of the Soul. Photo: China Lion Entertainment

Sydney Morning Herald
OCTOBER 18 2017
Jake Wilson

PATHS OF THE SOUL ★★
(PG) 120 minutes

If you’ve never pondered the literal meaning of the word “kowtow”, you may have something to learn from the new film by Chinese director Zhang Yang (Shower), which follows a dozen or so Tibetan villagers on a 1200-mile pilgrimage through the Himalayas to Lhasa, as is Buddhist tradition.

This would be an arduous trek under any circumstances but, adding to the challenge, every few steps the pilgrims must drop onto their stomachs and touch their foreheads to the earth.

To protect their bodies, they wear leather aprons and have wooden boards strapped to their hands, generating a noise like the clicking of castanets. In the absence of a conventional score, this becomes central to the film’s soundtrack.

The pilgrims in Paths of the Soul, to protect their bodies, wear leather aprons and have wooden boards strapped to their hands. Photo: China Lion Entertainment
Paths of the Soul is not quite fiction, not quite documentary. Reports indicate that the journey we see is real, and that the non-professional cast members are playing versions of themselves.

But it also appears that Zhang has manipulated events in the manner of a reality TV producer – ensuring, for example, that a pregnant woman (Tsring Chodron​) was part of the group in order to build a sequence around the birth of her child.


Pilgrims on the 1200-mile trek through the Himalayas to Lhasa in Paths of the Soul. Photo: China Lion Entertainment

That said, the limited drama here springs more from the natural world – say, the threat of an avalanche or flood – than from the kind of conflict between characters which commonly drives both avowed fiction and reality TV.

While the pilgrims vary by age and gender, we learn little about them as individuals. Most of the action is framed in long shot, as if keeping the mountains in view were more a priority than letting us see the characters’ faces.

Most of the action in Paths of the Soul is framed in long shot, keeping the mountains in view. Photo: China Lion Entertainment


Spiritually, too, the film keeps its distance, moving quickly past the question of why anyone would embark on this exhausting and risky journey at all.

Zhang, who isn’t religious himself, seems bent on having the best of both worlds – generating a vague feeling of uplift, while presenting Buddhist ritual as charmingly quaint.

Unsurprisingly in a Chinese film about Tibet, political issues are kept entirely out of the picture, though it’s notable that the characters seem to have no trouble maintaining their traditional way of life.

This is, in short, a blandly soothing film with little substance of any sort. How far you’re able to sustain interest over two full hours will depend on your enthusiasm for mountain scenery and for watching people kowtow.

For me, the appeal wore off fast.

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