Director – Pema Tseden – 2023 – Tibet – LEAFF Cert. 12 – 109m
A monk invites a filmmaker friend to a remote farm in the Tibetan mountain region where a snow leopard trapped in a sheep pen has killed nine sheep –the late Pema Tseden’s final completed film plays in the Official Selection at the 2023 London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) which ran from Wednesday, October 18th to Sunday, October 29th
Film maker Dradul (Genden Phuntsok) has been informed by his friend Nyima the Snow Leopard Monk (Tseten Tashi) of an incident and so sets out for the region of the Tibetan Mountains with a small crew in his car. Following roads in the freezing wilderness, the car arrives at a remote farm which consists basically of a stone farmhouse and a sheep pen where the Snow Leopard Monk awaits them, along with the old farmer and his family.
The sheep pen has been breached by a snow leopard, a rare animal that’s a protected species in Tibet, and the old farmer’s adult son Jinpa (Jinpa) is furious that it has killed nine sheep. Confronted with the camera, he argues vociferously that man must live with the snow leopard, and that a small number of kills would be acceptable, but an amount as large as nine is most definitely not okay. In short, he wants to kill the snow leopard – but if he does so, there will be legal consequences.
His father, who is of a generation which would have accepted the killings, takes a more conciliatory view towards the creature. The monk has visions (shot in stylish black and white) of setting the creature free after it has been strung up as punishment, possibly in preparation for its being killed.
The film maker has a cameraman he is constantly instructing to shoot either the snow leopard in the pen or various members of the farmer’s family. On at least one occasion, the cameraman gets so caught up in the excitement of what’s unfolding before him that he actually forgets to shoot it. Later, when the authorities turn up to try and calm down the irate son and ensure the protection of the snow leopard, he is told to turn his camera off by the authorities representatives.
By way of contrast, the Snow Leopard Monk is obsessed not only with finding then observing snow Leopards, but also with photographing them, to which purpose he carries a camera with him wherever he goes. He indicates the snow leopard cub loitering on a nearby hillside, waiting for its mother. Later, he takes his friend the filmmaker up a mountain slope in seach of a leopard, and the pair are astonished when his patience pays off and one comes really close to their hiding place and vantage point.
The whole thing is mercifully free from sentiment, emphasising rather the (Buddhist) religious mindset of the monk, his visions and his photographic quests, the go-getter nature of the film maker and the very different reactions of the old farmer and his son. It showcases a real respect for wildlife, with the snow leopard itself prsumably realised by a combination of real life animal cinematography and peerless special effects CG animation work.
It’s the final film of the late Tibetan director Pema Tseden, who was dedicated to putting non-stereotypical images of Tibetan people on the screen. Sadly, he died of heart failure at age 53 in May 2023 before the film was shown at this year’s Venice Film Festival, which had previously shown three of his earlier films. As a swansong to a distinguished career, it’s a good way to go out. As with so many films in LEAFF and other festivals, this film deserves a wider UK theatrical release.
The cast also includes Xiong Ziqi and Losang Choepel.
Snow Leopard plays in the Official Selection at the 2023 London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) which ran from Wednesday, October 18th to Sunday, October 29th.