I’d like to start this review by commending the filmmakers for tackling a subject that Hollywood hasn’t dared to touch for over 20 years: the occupation of Tibet by the Chinese communist government and the Tibetan people’s continued struggle for independence. It’s a tender subject that is often the target of severe censorship from the CCP, so props to the filmmakers for their attempt to depict this kind of story on the big screen.
That being said, “attempt” is the kindest word I can use for Tenzin because the end result is one of the most tedious slogs I’ve ever had to experience as a film reviewer, which is really saying something given the film’s scant 73 minute runtime.
What passes for a story revolves around the eponymous Tenzin (Tenzin Kelsang)* whose elder brother has recently committed suicide via self-immolation in protest of Tibet’s continued occupation. Tenzin struggles to come to terms with his late brother’s final act and proceeds to spend the rest of the film brooding through the winter streets of Toronto, interrupted occasionally by his turf war-engulfed tow truck job and nightclub drug binges. Oh yeah, and he’s also haunted by the ghost of his dead brother during the film’s few points of visual interest.
That’s about the long and the short of it. As I imply in the title of this review, there’s really only enough story material here for a short film and not a great one at that. The film seems to populate its cast with exclusively non-actors which can certainly work for a compelling screenplay (ie; Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less) but largely serves to drain audience empathy here. Kelsang gives the audience almost nothing to empathize with as he blankly stares into the middle distance through most of the picture. I’d be surprised if he had more than 50 words of dialogue throughout.
The film scores some points for solid cinematography and enthralling sound design (including a noteworthy electronic score by Colin Stetson), but if not in the service of a worthwhile story, what’s the point?
You can now see Tenzin for free on CBC Gem, but you’d be wasting your time if not your money. If directors Michael LeBlanc and Joshua Reichmann see fit to team up for another feature, I wish them both luck in producing something that doesn’t leave me begging for the end credits less than ten minutes into it.
Tenzin will screen at the VIFF Centre on March 22, 5:50pm and can also be streamed on CBC Gem
*Tenzin is a Tibetan given name meaning “Holder of the Buddha Dharma”