review: Lost Horizon

Frank Capra’s 1937 film Lost Horizon is based off of the 1933 book of the same name by James Hilton. It follows a group of Europeans whose plane from China is hijacked and taken deep into the Himalayas, where they crash right next to Shangri-La. Capra’s Shangri-La is a peaceful and beautiful city surrounded by (and protected by) mountains on all sides. It is inhabited and governed almost entirely by Europeans (it was founded by a Belgian priest, who is miraculously still alive 200 years later), though there are glimpses of the Tibetan natives as (happy) workers in the village and as singing children. Like many of Frank Capra’s films, the message that he wishes to convey to his audience is not particularly subtle. The message here is delivered to the protagonist, Conway, via a speech from the ‘High Lama’ (Father Perrault). War and greed, Perrault says, are ruining the world and will eventually destroy it. Once the world is destroyed, Perrault hopes, the people will find Shangri-La from whence love will spread throughout the new world and the Christian ethic of the meek inheriting the earth shall be fulfilled.

This film is the classic example of the West applying the “myth of Shangri-La” to Tibet. Via this fantasy, Tibet is extremely romanticized.

This can be seen from the movie still to the right. This is the first moment in which the five Europeans enter the city of Shangri-La. Despite the fact that it’s deep in the Himalayas, the city is nearly tropical. There are fountains, fruit trees, and sleek modern buildings. This is all explained by Chang (a European who runs the day to day operations of the ‘Lamastery’) as being possible due to the fact that Shangri-La is surrounded on all sides by mountains. All of these mountains around the city further allow for it to be cut off from the rest of the world (porters arrive every several years). This extreme isolation is similar to the manner in which Ronald Lopez describes the Western fantasy of Tibet: Tibet is portrayed as removed from the rest of the world and exists as a (rapidly disappearing) cure for the West (Lopez 1998: 7-10).

The danger in applying this myth to Tibet, as Jamyang Norbu states, is that Tibet (and Tibetans) end up being typecast by the West (Norbu 2001: 378)*. It can consciously or subconsciously force Tibetans to act in a certain manner in order to fulfill their Western image (an image that Norbu argues that is also slowly becoming their own). It is easy to see how this film helped shape and define the myth of Tibet-as-Shangri-La. Everyone, multiple characters say, is searching for their own version of the peace and happiness that Shangri-La perpetuates. As this film was made between World War I and World War II, this would have been a compelling image for people familiar with wartime atrocities. It remains a compelling image today as well. This movie, however, pinpoints an exact location in the ‘real’ world for this mythical land and it has become regrettably difficult to separate the myth from the reality. Hence the title of Lopez’s book: Prisoners of Shangri-La.

To further illustrate how this mixture of myth and reality is perpetuated still, I have included the video below. It is an Irish pop song from the 1980s that was inspired by Lost Horizon.

Lee Lynch sings about his desire to return to this place that he is separated from, as can be seen in the chorus: How could I ever doubt you/No living without you, Shangri-la/So near so far/Oh God, I gotta make it back to you, sweet Shangri-la. It is essentially a love song, with the singer pining for his lost love, Shangri-La. In the pop tradition of singing a love song, Shangri-La becomes utterly feminized: it is an object of desire that the man has lost. This feminized Shangri-La can also be seen in the film as the person responsible for sending forConwaywas Sondra, a woman. Further, just as Conway eventually falls in love with Shangri-La, he simultaneously falls in love with Sondra. The parallel between the two objects of Conway’s love feminizes the city.

As Norbu claims, the romantic and ubiquitous myth of Shangri-La can be a dangerously self-fulfilling image forTibet. As the film demonstrates, it is a fantasy that people desperately crave and thus, as it has been attached to Tibet for so long, it is difficult to completely remove it from Tibet’s image.


*Norbu, Jamyang. “Behind the Lost Horizon: Demystifying Tibet,” Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies. Eds. Thierry Dodin and Heinz Rather.Somerville,MA: Wisdom Publications, 2001.


Review: Kokonor

Kokonor follows a Tibetan doctor around the territory near Lake Kokonor (a Mongonlian name) which is currently known as “151” due to the frequency of name-changes. The doctor treats nomads in the ‘traditional manner’ by visiting their houses, though he does use a Red Cross medical kit. While visiting their homes and treating them, he asks their opinions on their treatment by the Chinese and on how the lake itself has been treated. These interviews, occasionally broken by commentary from the doctor and several brief interviews with tourists and people in the tourism industry, comprise the film.

One of the things most commented on by the Tibetans in the film is on the substantial increase in tourism at the lake over the last decade.

Interestingly, the tourism industry over the last decade has also shifted from being government controlled to being largely in private hands. The picture to the right is from a private Chinese tourism company which advertises the lake as an excellent day trip from Xining. This shift to private control of the tourism sector is indicative of China’s push to modernize or, at the very least, Westernize.

What ends up happening to the native Tibetans in China’s push to modernize and become more capitalistic is summed up rather dramatically in this statement from the White Papers: “Historical development has proved that the modernization tide is enormous and powerful, that those who go with it will prosper while those who go against it will perish” (2001: II). This is a fairly graphic depiction, but an effective one nonetheless. The nomads in this film are absolutely portrayed as being “crushed” by modernization. Due to fencing and deeds being updated without warning, many of them no longer have access to their traditional lands. This has, as the film points out, severely altered their way of life and has increased the poverty rate.

Screenshot from "Kokonor" (2008)



In order to help ameliorate their rather dire financial situation, many nomad families dress their young children up in traditional Tibetan dress to have their pictures taken by tourists. The small amount of cash that they can earn doing this enables their families to survive (the picture to the left is of one of the children from the film). It was painful for me, at least, to watch the children pose for the tourists because of the way that it commodifies traditional Tibetan culture. The principal of the school in the area specifically termed it an exploitation of the culture. Most painful for me, perhaps, was the fact that young boys were dressed as young girls because the tourists prefer pictures of girls rather than boys.

While watching the film, I was also horrified by the comments of one tourist from Beijing. The screenshot to the right shows him (and the appropriate subtitle) from when he claimed that he really wanted pictures of himself and that the children were just a part of the scenery.  However, after reading Huber’s article about “Green Tibetans”, I wasn’t quite as upset by this statement.

Screenshot from "Kokonor" (2008)

He emphasizes in the article that traditional Tibetans are “…in harmony with nature and non-exploitative of their natural resources” (1995: 103). This tourist seems to have thoroughly absorbed this representation of Tibetans to the extent of making them physically a part of the scenery. While it is still a rather lamentable turn of phrase, the sentiment behind it is fairly in line with the concept of the ‘Green Tibetan’.

The entire film, in fact, is extremely supportive of the concept of the Green Tibetan in contrast to the exploitative Chinese. It ends on the rather ominous note that, if modernization occurs at the current rate, Kokonor will disappear within 200 years. It implies that, if it were left to the Tibetans, the lake would not be as awfully polluted as it is today. However, I wonder if this implication would play out. The film also notes that the nomad Tibetans have modernized in certain ways. Many of them drive motorcycles now rather than ride horses. How long, I wonder, will the concept of the ‘Green Tibetan’ be a valid representation?


Review: From Chinese Women’s Eyes

This documentary, which focuses on women’s thoughts about being women in China, was created through the efforts of a Chinese-American anthropologist, Mayfair Yang. Even if she hadn’t announced her profession at the beginning of the film, it would have been quite obvious to me due to her methods. There was very little voice-over and the film mostly consisted of interviews with a variety of Chinese women. I rather enjoyed the structure of the film, as it (arguably) allowed for less of a reinterpretation of the situations that the women described.

Mayfair Yang, taken from her biography

I claim that this is “arguable” due to the fact that it seemed like many of the comments from the women were scripted. The most striking example of this phenomenon was the scene of the conversation between the three women in the restaurant. All three women were career women and they were discussing balancing their career with their family life. One of the women described how she couldn’t imagine not having either a family or a career and how she couldn’t give up either. The rest of the conversation continued in a similar vein. While I was not surprised at the situations that the women described, I was shocked at the seeming lack of emotion with which each of them described their situation. All of the women were extremely matter of fact and blasé, which made me wonder if the conversation had been either rehearsed or scripted. Perhaps this is merely a cultural difference, but I had been speaking with two girl-friends about tensions between my career and my family, I wouldn’t have treated the subject quite so lightly.

Another possibility for this apparent lack of emotion was described by Cynthia Enloe in Bananas, Beaches and Bases. She describes women as the most valuable possessions of the nationalistic state, who are to be symbols of the state rather than participants (Enloe 1989: 42). Perhaps these women in the café have truly become a possession, molded by the state in how to think and how to act.

A woman like this would have to balance her career and her family life (from http://www.canstockphoto.com)

There would presumably be less emotion involved in the situation if they viewed the tension between the two spheres of their life as exactly how their lives were supposed to be. This sentiment of state-control of women is echoed by by Prasenjit Duara in The Regime of Authenticity: Timelessness, Gender, and National History in Modern China when he says that “…women were to be liberated for and by the nation: they were to embody the nation, not to be active agents shaping it.” (Duara 1998: 298). Thus, these women in the café may have been liberated by the nation by having high-profile jobs, but they still have the need to act for the nation by having children – the next generation of the nation.

This state control of women that Enloe (and others) discusses, however, is not nearly as overt as it was during the Maoist era. The film describes a “state-enforced feminism” in which the state declared that there existed no difference between women and men. Among the many forms of propaganda that helped reinforce this notion were the Communist Party’s sanctioned operas. These operas commonly featured women in positions of power, frequently leading men, and performing deeds to help the nation.

This clip is from one of these operas, entitled The Red Detachment of Women. The scene portrays the heroine being liberated by the Communist Party from her previous life of great oppression.  This is a very clear depiction of the CCP’s belief that they were liberating women from their traditional roles – shaping them into objects of the state. The heroine here is also obviously grateful to the CCP for her liberation: she cries tears of joy as she caresses the red flag. It is further interesting to note that there are many female members of the CCP army who come to liberate the heroine in this scene, thus further demonstrating the Maoist thought that there were no differences between women and men.

To return to the women in the café in the film, it is interesting to consider the subject of their conversation in terms of this quote from Phyllis Andors in Revolution Postponed: Women in Revolutionary China: “Thus in political-ideological terms, the resolution of the women question inChina is to be dependent upon the future success of economic modernization.” (Wolf 1985: 27). These women in the film speak of their careers twelve years after this book was published – has the ‘women question’ in China thus been resolved?

Based upon my viewing of From Chinese Women’s Eyes, I would say that it has not. The economy has modernized (or, at least, ‘Westernized’) but this modernization has by no means definitively answered the question of where women belong in the nationalistic state of China. For each of the career-oriented women that talked in the café, whose lives modernized with the economy, there were many other women whose jobs in factories had been eliminated, sending them back home to be traditional housewives. I would personally be quite interested to see how these conditions for women have changed in the fourteen years since the film was released.


Review: Stranger in My Native Land

While watching Stranger in My Native Land, I was particularly struck by the range of emotions of Tenzing Sonam as he toured Tibet (his homeland) for the first time. When meeting his father’s family, he describes himself as “an emissary from the past”, referencing the fact that he only knows Tibet the way that his family described it to him and that there is a great difference between the Tibet-of-the-past and the Tibet-of-the-present. For example: while he knows Tibetan, his father’s family only speaks a Chinese dialect. In these moments, Tenzing Sonam is emotionally conflicted. He is both thrilled to meet most of his family for the first time (he had met one other member inIndia) and yet he is saddened that the Tibet that he had held in his mind didn’t match up with the reality.

This is especially true when he enters Lhasa for the first time. He claims that Lhasa is a Mecca for Tibetans, who all try to visit at least once before they die. Now, though, as Tenzing Sonam describes, Lhasa is largely controlled by the Chinese. The shops and businesses are Chinese-controlled, the signs are in Chinese, and religious sites have been turned into tourist locations.


The above picture is the most notable of these sites: the Potala Palace, where the Dalai Lama used to reside. It is currently a tourist attraction operated by the Chinese. This photo, in fact, comes from a Chinese tourism site and accompanied an article about places to see in Lhasa.

When Tenzing Sonam saw sights like this, he described himself as being “filled with deep and helpless rage”. While he describes his emotion as anger, the emotion that he displays is one of grief at something that has been lost. It is as if he is mourning the loss of a Tibet that he never knew, as evidenced by his reaction of sadness at the fact that the Potala Palace is a museum, although he never personally knew it as anything else.

As if to underscore the emotions surrounding the loss of Tibetan culture, his next stop is the village where his mother’s family lives, which has been relatively untouched by the efforts of the Chinese government. This village, as Tenzing describes it, is “strange but strangely familiar”. I expected his reaction to be much happier when he discovered the village to be “Tibetan” (no Chinese dialects spoken, etc.), but it was still tinged with sadness. He was saddened, it appeared, by the poverty in which his family and the rest of the village lived. A village similar to the one that he visited can be seen to the right (from http://www.carto.net).

While many peasants in Tibet are poor (and live in villages similar to the one in the picture), and Tenzing knew that his mother’s family was not wealthy, it seemed as though he was deeply upset by the fact that he had just seen wealthy Chinese immigrants in Lhasa. Other Tibetans in Lhasa had secretly told him how much they were suffering under Chinese rule. This distinct contrast between the relative wealth and poverty of those who live in Tibet lies just beneath many of the emotions that Tenzing feels upon returning “home”, although it is a home that he has never lived in.

While this concept of considering a place a home without having ever lived in it is very reminiscent of Maalki’s discussion of “roots” and the homeland as a “moral destination” (Maalki 1999:67), what this film made me think of most was The Struggle for Modern Tibet. The book is the autobiography of Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan who grew up inTibet as a dancer for the Dalai Lama and who later left the country. In the opening chapters, he describes his youth and childhood inTibet and many descriptions of events that occurred during those times are followed by the statement that “…it was simply what was done in those days.” (Goldstein et.al. 1997: 30).

A statement such as that indicates that much has changed over the years since those customs and events took place. TheTibetthat existed before the Chinese take-over – the place that Tenzing’s parents described to him and where Tashi Tsering grew up – no longer exists.Tibetis constantly changing in response to both external and internal influences. This, of course, raises the question: should we (the world) allow Tibet to keep evolving? If we do, or if it does so against our wishes, should we mourn those changes like Tenzing Sonam does?

What this constant evolution does mean, however, is that there are multiple views and understandings about what Tibet is. Those in exile necessarily have a different concept of what Tibet is compared with those who live in Tibet (for example: Tenzing’s older cousin can’t stop dancing in his joy that Tenzing is visiting and can see/document all of the things in his life). Somehow, though, these different conceptions of what Tibet is will have to be reconciled (or at least negotiated) in order for an answer to emerge to the “Tibet Question”.

Furthermore, this song by Iron Maiden (Stranger in a Strange Land) connects beautifully with the conflicting emotions in Stranger in My Native Land. Literally, the lyrics refer to a man exploring the Artic, being frozen to death, and being discovered many years later by another group of explorers. While the titles of the movie and the song are remarkably similar, the lyrics also express sadness at the loss of someone these explorers had never known mixed with the curiosity of discovery. Most striking are these lines from the chorus: What became of the man that started/All are gone and their souls departed (Adam Smith, 1986). When applied to Tibet, this easily connects to the constant evolution of Tibet and Tibetan culture: nothing that is alive can be “frozen”, instead things evolve as they continue to exist.


Review: Cry of the Snow Lion

“The homeland here is not so much a territorial or topographic entity as a moral destination. And the collective, idealized return to the homeland is not a mere matter of traveling. The real return can come only at the culmination of the trials and tribulations in exile.” (Malkki 1999: 67)

A child in a Tibetan Children’s Village in India (http://philosophy.fortlewis.edu/travel.html Jennifer Kiels, 2008)


I was particularly struck by this passage from Liisa Malkki’s “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees” while watching Cry of the Snow Lion. It describes what seems to be the intent of the film: to emphasize to a Western audience that the native Tibetans deserve to live in and control their homeland (in part) due to the suffering that they have undergone. The film describes and illustrates quite graphically the trials and tribulations that many of the Tibetans have suffered leading up to and during their exile. The rather bloody riot footage was interspersed with spectacular views of Tibetan scenery as well as snippets of religious ceremonies, which served to emphasize the horrific nature of the violence. This contrast between the peaceful and the violent was appropriate, though I felt it overly dramatized when it was prefaced with interviews with members of older generations about how serene and perfect Tibet had been in their childhoods. Also, for me at least, the narration by Martin Sheen gave the film an overdramatic quality that seemed to trivialize some of the sufferings of the Tibetans.

The film also agrees with Malkki on the fact that Tibetis a “moral destination” and much more than just a territory. There exists a government-in-exile in Indiawhich, among other things, operates Tibetan Children’s Villages. These are schools where children of Tibetan exiles can come to learn Tibetan language and culture. This way, the knowledge of the culture won’t be lost when they (eventually) return to their homeland. This demonstrates that the physical land that comprises Tibetis much more than just the land. If there was not some sort of “root” (as Malkki describes) that connected the Tibetans to that particular area of the world, then there would not be the fervent desire to return. Their government exists relatively intact and there are centers of cultural instruction not all that far away from Tibet. However, as Malkki emphasizes, there is a moral pull of the native country and furthermore, Cry of the Snow Lion attempts to pass this moral pull onto a Western audience. Through both the violent and the peaceful imagery, it attempts to convince its Western audience that the Tibetans in exile deserve to be returned to their homeland as well as deserve to have political control over it.

The conclusion of Malkki’s article left me wondering how the filmmakers would respond to it. She claims, “To plot only ‘places of birth’ and degrees of nativeness is to blind oneself to the multiplicity of attachments that people form to places through living in, remembering, and imagining them.” (Malkki 1999: 72). These next generations of Tibetans that are being educated in the Tibetan Children’s Villages (in exile) will only be able to think ofTibetin terms of their imagination; unlike previous generations, they won’t have memories of the way thatTibetwas in the past. Thus, they will have, as Malkki describes, attachments to wherever they were raised in exile, be itIndiaor somewhere else. The roots that bind a person to their heritage are “in a state of constant flux and change” (Malkki 1999: 71). Would the filmmakers agree with this statement that the roots of Tibetans may not be as firmly planted for the succeeding generations? Or would they, as the film seems to state, believe that absence makes the heart grow fonder?

July 2018
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