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Paths of the Soul

A Film Review

Paths of the Soul
Directed by Zhang Yang, Icarus Films
China, 2016
1 hour, 57 minutes in duration
Tibetan with English subtitles

Film is available on iTunes and Amazon.
Trailer is available on Vimeo.

Paths of the Soul is a film about a group of devout Tibetan Buddhists that embark on a 1,200-mile pilgrimage from their hometown in Mangkang County to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. But this is not just any pilgrimage. The journey involves prostrating every few steps from beginning to end. The road itself, National Highway 318, winds its way through hills with snow, falling rocks, and other traffic zooming by. Through it all the pilgrims continue to prostrate.

Clearly this is not a journey for the faint of heart and yet participants include a heavily pregnant woman, a young child, and an elderly man. Each of the travelers has their own reasons for the trip and the unfolding of their stories drives the film forward.

There are many things that could be said about this film. To start, it is a documentary that’s not really a documentary. The pilgrimage was done for the film but the actors are amateurs and there was no script involved. In doing this, director Zhang Yang struck a skilled balance between observing and involving himself in the lives of the people. As a viewer, you were along for the journey, but not in an invasive way as the characters still went about life in a very natural manner. It also doesn’t hurt that the film was beautifully shot with breathtaking cinematography that stands solidly on its own to anchor the film and support the organic story.

You’re also probably wondering about the setting of the film, if there is any political agenda, and the answer is no. The story is focused on the pilgrimage, the people, and how they get through this life-changing adventure.

But aside from all this, two moments in the film stood out to me.

The first being one of the earlier stops that the group makes and they are given guidance by an elderly man about how to properly pray and prostrate along the pilgrimage.

Your steps should depend on the incantation.
Take seven or eight steps for those incantations.
If you made a wish, follow the Lama’s instruction.
The key to kowtow, is a pious heart.
A pilgrimage is to pray for others.
To wish safety and happiness to all.
And wish the same for you too.
That’s how you kowtow.

Regardless of each person’s personal reason, the ultimate purpose of the pilgrimage was to pray for others. The dedication, commitment, endurance of all hardships that they would come upon—all that to pray for others. Perhaps there’s something that we Christians can learn here in terms of spiritual discipline and piety.

The second was at a later stop after one of the men had been injured by rocks falling from the surrounding cliffs.

I’m so unlucky, why did the rocks fall on my leg?
When I think about it, God is unfair.
When we built the house last year one truck killed two men and injured two others. We had to pay a compensation to the families, I took care of that alone.
When my grandad was alive, he never did anything bad.
My father never did anything bad.
I never did anything bad either.
Why is this happening?
The three of us
[him and his family], we do the pilgrimage for the two that are dead and to wish happiness and health to other people.

Hearing this man say this reminded me that we are all the same under God. Human beings, no matter where you’re from or the faith you believe in, we’re all asking the same questions. Questions about what we’re doing here on earth and what it means in the grand scheme of things—a longing for something bigger than ourselves. For whatever reason this man came on this pilgrimage, his heart is searching, as we all are.

Each of the traveler’s reasons and stories reveal valuable insights in the journey of faith and discovery and this is what makes Paths of the Soul a worthy watch. The authenticity and aesthetics will draw you in while the challenge of faith will keep you there until the credits roll.

Image credit: Cineman
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Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau was born and raised in Canada. Growing up with immigrant parents from Hong Kong gave her a rich perspective on both Eastern and Western cultures. She has spent her adult life in Asia, beginning in China serving through work in the marketplace. With a colorful and hard-earned career in …View Full Bio

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