Khyentse Norbu coaxed wonderful performances out of his fellow monks.
You know you?re in the global village within the first few moments of The Cup, when you see a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks kicking around an empty Coke can as they play their version of soccer in the courtyard of their monastery in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Based on a true story, The Cup is directed by Khyentse Norbu, a monk who educated himself in film by studying great masters, by assisting Bernardo Bertolucci on the film Little Buddha and by making several short films. This spare, simply produced comedy gives North American audiences a window into the world of another culture, and Christians a perspective on life within another faith tradition.
Norbu, better known under his religious title as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, coaxed out of his fellow monks wonderful performances, creating a film that is both humourous and endearing.
It?s about the fascination of the younger monks of the Chokling Monastery with the World Cup. Set in 1998, a 13-year-old novice Jamyang Lodro takes the lead both in the story and in his performance, as the most enthusiastic soccer fan of the community.
First you see the community at worship, chanting in their distinctive way, offering incense and praying; but the camera takes you to the back row of the monks where you catch one nodding off, and others passing notes. It?s like church: the best parts of the liturgy are ones that no one notices!
The notes that get passed round reveal a plan to escape from the monastery at night and go into the village where there?s a TV so that they can watch the World Cup. They?re fans of France, ?the only country that has always supported Tibet? and they have worked out a system to get out and back before Geko, their supervisor, catches them. Finally Jamyang is able to convince Geko and the abbot that the monks should be allowed to watch the final game at the monastery; he takes up a collection, rents a TV and a satellite dish and the monks get to see it.
At one level, The Cup is about the intrusion of globalization even to the foothills of the Himalayas. But Norbu has other themes to explore. The abbot, an elderly monk, is always packing to go home to Tibet. He lives with the expectation that he will return, even though they have been in exile for many years.
While all the shenanigans about the World Cup are going on, the community welcomes two new members: they?re young brothers who have been brought to the community from Tibet. Their entrance into monastic life and incorporation into the community is fascinating to see. The younger brother clings to a watch that his mother gave him. It?s his only connection with a life, a family and a land he?s left behind.
This watch becomes the key object within the story. Although the World Cup finally comes, by way of satellite TV to the monastery, Jamyang?s pleasure is short lived as he is affected by the grief of the younger brother. In its final moments The Cup leaves the worlds of comedy and international politics to become a parable of compassion and community.
More than a Coke can gets kicked around in this gentle but profound film: with humour and with sensitivity Norbu makes an important statement about life in the global village. It?s this: as we discover our deep compassion we will truly touch the ground of our being.
Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.