Thursday, April 14, 2011

Preliminary Impressions of Prince of the Himalayas

Prince of the Himalayas [Ban dao yin xiang; a.k.a. Ximalaya wangzi]. Dir. Sherwood Hu. Perf. Purba Rgyal, Dobrgyal, Zomskyid, Sonamdolgar, Lobden, and Lopsang. Hus Entertainment, Shanghai Film Studios. 20 October 2006.
The Shakespeare Association of American was able, somehow, to get a copy of Prince of the Himalayas and to offer a screening of it at its convention this year. That alone is astonishing—I've found it nearly impossible to track down this film or anything substantive about it. But the film itself is even more astonishing. The fact that it exists at all already strains credulity. Is it possible to imagine a film made in China that is set in ancient Tibet and that is entirely in Tibetan?

I was able to see it, and images from it have been haunting me ever since. My brain can't quite get around this film and the implications of its existence for the study of global Shakespeare. After I have time to let it percolate, I hope to write a more scholarly analysis (the journal Shakespeare—put out by the British Shakespeare Association—has a call for papers on global Shakespeare, for example). In the meantime, I thought I would provide Bardfilm's readers with a trailer and a detailed plot summary.


That trailer gives the merest taste of the film—an entrée en matière (or an amuse-bouche, if you prefer) that serves only to whet the appetite. I wish I could provide you with more illustrative video clips, but I've been unable to track down a copy of the DVD. However, I can provide details of the plot (with some speculative commentary, which I'll put in italics).

Spoiler Alert: Many details of the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet have been altered and re-arranged in this film. If you hope to see the film yourself someday, stop here.

Disclaimer: I know that I'm doing exactly what I ask my students not to do. The most common error in the essays produced by my Shakespeare and Film classes is providing plot summary and assuming that it is equivalent to analysis. But I think I should be able to get away with it here for two reasons:
  1. In my classes, the students can count on their professor and their peers having seen the film they're writing about and having read the play to which it relates. Plot summary in such circumstances is unnecessary. In this instance, however, I cannot assume that the audience has seen the fllm; they need to know about the plot as a starting point for analysis and discussion.

  2. No one is assigning a grade to this blog post—at least, not an official, accredited grade.
With that in mind, we can proceed to . . .

A Detailed Plot Summary of Prince of the Himalayas:

The film opens with a solitary figure on a snowy landscape with vast mountains in the background. The man approaches the edge of a stream and says, "Spirit of Heaven. He is dead. I beg the shelter of your forgiveness." He then lets go of a puppy and watches it amble off.

Almost immediately, a female figure appears and makes this announcement: "The King is dead—with a new king, a river of blood will flow."

The first figure is Kulo-ngam, the Claudius analogue. The woman is called "The Wolf Woman" thorough the rest of the film—except for one point where she is called "Po." The film establishes from the start two themes: Calling on "the Spirit of Heaven" and the river of blood.

The next section shows us alternating images of Prince Lhamoklodan (the Hamlet analogue) rushing home and Tibetan funeral rites. We learn a bit about the Jiabo (that's how the subtitles spelled it, though I see "Jiaobo" on some websites) and their traditions by this means. When he arrives, Lhamoklodan insists on knowing why—why they did not delay his father's funeral until his arrival. Nanm (the Gertrude figure) tells him that his uncle will rule as regent until Lhamoklodan becomes of age.

In my post on "Shakespeare in the Bush" (for which, q.v.), I wondered what aspects of the plot of Hamlet might need to be changed in transferring it to another culture. I wonder if this explanation of the transfer of power derives from the culture at hand or if it is a convenient way to make the Claudius analogue King of the Himalayas for the time being. As we'll see, the motivation here is complicated.

We soon cut to a meeting between Lhamoklodan and Odsaluyang (the Ophelia analogue). He presents her with an ivory-handled blade. Later, this blade will stand in for the "remembrances" that she has "longed long to redeliver" to him.

Several quick scenes follow. We hear the announcement that Kulo-ngam intends to marry his sister-in-law. At that news, Po-lha-nyisse (I'll leave it to your ingenuity to guess which character he follows most closely) gasps, letting us know that, for the Jiabo culture of this time, this is shockingly unexpected.

We cut to a vast river that runs near Odsaluyang's hut (or a hut from which she exits)—for those familiar with Hamlet, this seems like some heavy-handed foreshadowing, but it may be there to mislead us.

After that, it's made quite clear that that Hamlet and Ophelia are sleeping together (though they are unmarried). There's a brief, semi-explicit love-making scene; at the end of it, we cut to a naked Lhamoklodan riding on a horse across a plain. Then we cut back to Hamlet, looking at the camera upside-down and in close-up. The symbolism seems fairly straightforward there.

After that, we turn our attention to some sort of celebration. Gertrude and Claudius briefly but suggestively touch hands while passing a bowl. Hamlet seems to react negatively—though I may be misreading the subtleties of his reaction. And Po-lha-nyisse simply watches on, gathering material for his own purposes.

In the next scene, we meet Horshu, who is the Horatio analogue. He doesn’t have much of a role later in the film, but, in this scene, we have almost a line-by-line translation of Shakespeare's text. Lhamoklodan tells Horshu that he sees his father—in his mind's eye—and that provides Horshu with the opportunity to relate what he saw the night before. Essentially, Horshu's report and the following scene (in which Lhamoklodan meets the spirit of his departed father) are parallel to the comparable scenes in Hamlet.

Here's a brief point that I will need to consider later. When Lhamoklodan, Horshu, and one or two others swear not to report what they have seen, they grab each others' thumbs. Is this another example of cultural difference? Is that how to swear in Tibetan?

For the next thirty minutes or so of the film, the plot known to readers of Hamlet is disjointed and disordered. It's a bit like reading the first quarto (known as "the bad quarto") of Hamlet. And there are additions by another hand as well. The Wolf Woman re-enters and tells the story of two men and of a battle between the two. We learn that the Hamlet, Sr. analogue tries to kill the Claudius analogue, suspecting him of infidelity with his queen. But the Wolf Woman’s narrative breaks off at that point.

Again, we have several brief scenes in rapid succession:
  • Part of a play-within-the-play scene.

  • Laertes’ advice to Ophelia.

  • Hamlet's calling Polonius a Fishmonger (in this version, he's called "a slave"). Polonius' advice to Hamlet "to stay out of the wind," to which he replies, "Into my grave?"

  • Something like the scene when Ophelia is sewing in her closet. Hamlet seems a bit mad and gives Ophelia a letter on sheepskin while Polonius, in the background, seems to look on.

  • Polonius' report to the king and queen on the cause of Hamlet's apparent madness.
Note: The letter that Hamlet has given to Ophelia and that Polonius reads to the King and Queen is identical to the one in Shakespeare's text: "Doubt that the stars are fire; / Doubt that the sun doth move; / Doubt truth to be a liar; / But never doubt I love." That poem is, as far as I remember, given in full.
  • We next get a tiny bit of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern analogue.

  • The Wolf Woman’s troop of actors approaches.

  • More play-within-the-play: the Wolf Woman tells "a story from a long time ago"; in the middle of it, we cut to a flashback of Hamlet's encounter with the spirit.

  • The Wolf Woman mentions “a dog that contains murderous thoughts,” at which the Claudius analogue cries.

  • Lhamoklodan asks Nanm how she likes the play, and she replies, “This woman’s heart has been split in two”—a line that is later repeated by Nanm to describe herself in the closet scene.
After another brief flashback to the encounter with the ghost, the changes this film makes to the plot of Hamlet become more apparent, more substantial, and more significant.

Kulo-ngam / Claudius tells Nanm / Gertrude that he wants to turn the throne over to Lhamoklodan / Hamlet. We start to get the impression that there's more to this Kulo-ngam than we suspected—perhaps because those who have read Hamlet are predisposed to think of the Claudius figure in a certain way. We also watch as Nanm asks Kulo-ngam how the analogue to Hamlet, Sr. died. The implication, particularly as the two of them are alone and completely unobserved, is that Nanm does not know anything about her husband's death—and that she is, therefore, not complicit in any foul play that may have been involved in his death.

Are these alternate directions / alternate characterizations driven by cultural considerations? Or are they intended to keep the Hamlet-soaked audience on its toes?

Another fascinating departure from Shakespeare's plot follows. We are presented with an mind-shaking scene in which the analogue for Hamlet, Sr. and the Wolf Woman have an argument about what Lhamoklodan should be doing. Hamlet, Sr., true to the analogous character in Shakespeare's play, desperately insists on Lhamoklodan's getting revenge on Kulo-ngam. The Wolf Woman, who might otherwise be seen as comparable to the witches in Macbeth—making equivocal statements and looking for chaos—argues for prudence.

This is one of the most remarkable things about this derivative version of Hamlet. The addition of the soothsayer character is intriguing, particularly as her role in all of this encompasses (after a fashion) the narrator, the Players, providence, Fortinbras, the Ghost, and Osric. This strange, supernatural encounter embodies Hamlet's reluctance to take decisive action and the internal and external factors that force him to do so. The scene seems to be somehow related to the second appearance of the ghost in Hamlet—a reminder that there is a supernatural call for vengeance—but this one is entirely separate from any engagement with Hamlet. But I think that Lhamoklodan has one more vision of the spirit in this film—during the closet scene—although I may be misremembering that.

We have another brief scene where Kulo-ngam is at prayers while Lhamoklodan considers whether he should kill him or not. In this version, Po-lha-nyisse seems to be observing the entire scene.

As in Hamlet, we move on to a scene where Lhamoklodan challenges Nanm in her bedchamber while Po-lha-nyisse listens from behind a curtain. In this derivative, it's not clear whether anyone asked him to be there. He doesn't tell Kulo-ngam that he intends to overhear the scene; Nanm seems as startled as anyone when the identity of the man behind the curtain is revealed.

Even though we have learned that Nanm has had nothing to do with the murder of her husband, this scene reveals that she has more than enough motive—and her motivation takes a different form than most productions of Hamlet provide—if motivation is provided at all (i.e., the relatively-recent love she has for Claudius). Nanm tells Lhamoklodan that she was in love with Kulo-ngam before Lhamoklodan was born.

At this point, if not earlier, we start to wonder how all this fits together. If Nanm loved Kulo-ngam, why did she marry the man she married? And what are the implications of her marrying a man she didn't love? Is Lhamoklodan's grief not shared by Nanm? Did Nanm desire her husband's death? Did she encourage Kulo-ngam to bring his death about, either consciously or unconsciously?

Nanm says that she was forced into a marriage that she neither sought nor desired seventeen years ago. No details of how she was forced are forthcoming; perhaps it is enough that the King wished to marry her and the King's younger brother had no way of objecting.

Lhamoklodan, in the midst of the turmoil that this revelation causes, hears a noise behind a curtain and thinks—well, in this production, I'm not sure we're led to any particular surmise about what he's thinking. In any case, he's absolutely shocked to find that Po-lha-nyisse was behind the curtain. The scene is one of the best in the film in its acting and cinematography.

When he sees what he has done, Lhamoklodan stabs himself in the leg out of overwhelming remorse or a desire for all this horror to end. He's confined to his bed while the Wolf Woman heals him.

The film next takes us to a private exchange between Kulo-ngam and Nanm. In it, Kulo-ngam confesses to Nanm that he killed her husband and his brother. She accuses him of being power-hungry in seizing the throne while he tries to defend his actions by insisting that he did everything out of love for her—and to protect Lhamoklodan. He repeats the Wolf Woman's opening prophecy—"The King is dead—with a new king, a river of blood will flow"—and says that that’s the reason why he claimed the throne—to protect Lhamoklodan. He has interpreted the prophecy to mean that the new king will be the one to shed his blood. He has selflessly taken on the kingship so that Lhamoklodan will not suffer from the bloodshed prophesied.

As in Macbeth, the prophecy is equivocal. Kulo-ngam's interpretation of it may be wrong.

The Wolf Woman's story continues. She reveals that Nanm slept with Kulo-ngam before her wedding to the Hamlet, Sr. analogue. In flashback, we see some of that encounter.

It's becoming clearer and clearer that Kulo-ngam is Lhamoklodan’s biological father. The alteration to Shakespeare's plot is intriguing, altering as substantially as it does almost all the major relationships in the play. Kulo-ngam's motivation to protect Lhamoklodan, his desire to marry Nanm, and Nanm's hatred of her husband all click into place at this point.

But there's not much time to dwell on that revelation. Another series of quick scenes follows. We learn that the Sabo (Subi?) nation is on the border. Fortinbras, who will turn out to be an attractive woman, is on the move!

We have something of a nunnery scene; Odsaluyang returns the ivory-handled blade that Lhamoklodan had given her earlier.

Lhamoklodan, on what seems to be a self-imposed exhile, sees a group of soldiers and is captured by them in the ensuing battle. The leader of the troops demands to know his name before killing him, but when he reveals himself as Lhamoklodan, the threat ends, and the two of them have a pleasant discussion. Ajisuji is the name of the film's female Fortinbras. She says they’re attacking Persians for a trade route, which leads into a version of "How all occasions do inform against me." The two of them exchange swords, which seems to be a mutual non-aggression pact.

Interspersed with all that, we get various scenes of Odsaluyang associated with water.

Lhamoklodan determines to return to the palace and fulfill the spirit's demand for revenge on Kulo-ngam. As he nears home, he encounters the Wolf Woman once again. She warns Lhamoklodan not to return. I wish I could recall her exact words on this point. I believe there are echoes of the river of blood prophecy here.

The scene itself is another cinematographic triumph. Lhamoklodan and his companions are on one side of an enormous gulf; the Wolf Woman is on the other, shouting her warning across the gulf to enable herself to be heard. We can read the scene as symbolic of the gulf between the spirit world and the world of the living and of the potential for miscommunication between the two worlds.

The Laertes analogue returns at this point and threatens to kill Lhamoklodan. Kulo-ngam says that that will only happen over his dead body.

Various hints and subtleties in the preceding scenes have suggested that Odsaluyang is pregnant. At this point, the film makes it completely clear that she is not only pregnant but that she is about to give birth. In the pain of labor and with a considerable amount of bleeding, she approaches the stream. She lies on her back in the stream, and the water runs red with blood.

This is a partial fulfillment of the Wolf Woman's prophecy. What might have been a figurative prophecy turns out—at this point, at least—to be literal.

The film provides a haunting image of Odsaluyang, dead in the water, and of the baby to whom she has just given birth drifting away from her. At the very last instant before a jump cut, we think we see the baby move.

We cut to the Wolf Woman, who hears a cry and rescues the baby from the stream. She says, “Prince . . . prince of the Himalayas!”

Our attention is next drawn to Odsaluyang's funeral. The Laertes analogue asks the question about whether nothing more can be done for her, and the priest answers, "She has been given the rites due a virgin—isn't that enough?" The implication moves the discussion of suicide to the question of virginity.

The rest of the film seems to fly by. Lhamoklodan and the Laertes' analogue have a shockingly-violent exchange over Odsaluyang's spirit boat. Then we hear the news of a "Rare Poison Lap Dog" that Kulo-ngam was somehow able to obtain and to use to cause his brother's death. That seems to be the puppy Kulo-ngam released at the film's opening. While we get images of Lhamoklodan recovering from his encounter with Laertes, something like "To be or not to be" is presented in voiceover. Somewhere in here, Lhamoklodan learns that his uncle is his father and his father is his uncle.

While Lhamoklodan lies in bed, Kulo-ngam and Nanm join hands over him and (I think I'm remembering this correctly) raise one of his hands to entwine with theirs. The chance of a happy ending is in the air!

But Lhamoklodan pushes their hands away.

A fencing match of sorts follows. Lhamoklodan and the Laertes analogue take turns hitting each other with swords—one of which has been poisoned by Kulo-ngam—but, in this film, it's poisoned so that Lhamoklodan will be safe from the analogue for Laertes. Kulo-ngam has also prepared a poisoned cup of wine for the Laertes analogue to drink if the sword doesn't work. And, since Lhamoklodan and Laertes exchange swords before the match even begins, he needs that backup plan.

The end of Prince of the Himalayas falls in line with Shakespeare's Hamlet. Lhamoklodan is wounded with the poisoned sword; Laertes is later wounded with the same sword; Nanm drinks the poison by mistake; Kulo-ngam also dies—though I can't remember exactly how.

But there are still two differences between this film and Shakespeare's play. Lhamoklodan seems to cross over to the spirit world to deny Hamlet, Sr.'s demand for revenge. The two figures confront each other, the spirit asking, once more, for vengeance; Lhamoklodan refuses. And we are given one more glimpse of Lhamoklodan and Odsaluyang's baby. The baby is announced as King of Jiabo. One of the people with whom I saw the film said that the Fortinbras analogue was holding the baby at the end.

Undeniably, Prince of the Himalayas gives us an enormous serving of food for thought. This lengthy post is exactly what the title says: preliminary. The future will hold deeper analyses—from me and from many other scholars. I look forward with great anticipation to that future.
Links: The Film's Official Web Site.

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest