Tibet: The Cup

Cup 1
New refugees prostrate before the abbot.

Having watched The Cup (Phörpa) (Khyentse Norbu, 1999) when it first came out, I’ve enjoyed it just as much on a recent viewing. “Inspired by true events”, it’s a most endearing film, against the spectre of Chinese repression of Buddhism within occupied Tibet (wiki; reviewed e.g. here). This glossy trailer largely fails to convey its charm!

Director Khyentse Norbu is none other than the lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, who worked as consultant to Bertolucci for Little Buddha. Set in a Tibetan monastery in Indian exile during the 1998 World Cup, the film was shot in Himachal Pradesh, with amateur actors (including the abbot and monks) playing themselves, resulting in what Roger Ebert calls a “cheerful truce between the sacred and the mundane”.

Cup 2Orgyen displays his “shrine”.

The plot is driven by the football-obsessed young monk Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), and his encounters with the abbot, (longing to return to the homeland), his assistant (more tolerant than he seems), and the oracle (belittled by the younger monks).

Charged with looking after two new arrivals have just escaped from Tibet, when Orgyen leads them in sneaking out of the monastery to watch a match after dark in the nearby village, one of the new refugees struggles to climb through the fence, prompting him to come out with one of my favourite lines:

How did you manage to escape the Chinese?

Another review observes the irony of the abbot’s bemusement at “countries fighting over a ball” while the Tibetans are deprived of their own homeland. Also subtly portrayed are Orgyen’s patronising attitude towards the new arrivals from China, the monks’ lament “When will this country ever develop?”, and their distance from the local Indian community.

Cup 3
Mischief during monastic ritual.

The aspect of ritual as chore—dozing off, fooling around—makes a refreshing change from the much-touted Wisdom of the Mystic East shtick. But beyond mere drôlerie, a message of benevolent wisdom shines through, and after the dénouement of the final between France and Brazil (glimpses of a youthful Zidane!), the final homilies are as gentle as the rest of the film.

Cf. Echoes of Dharamsala and other posts under my Tibet roundup.

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