ENCHANTED by the bold-blue sky and ancient culture of Tibet, film director Xing Yingyi left China's teeming lowlands in 1987 for the high and vast Tibetan plateau. The young director set out to film Tibetan nomads. But he came back with a documentary that reveals more about the sense of romance and grand destiny Chinese feel when looking to the far horizons of the Tibetan frontier.
``An irresistible, subliminal call drew me to Tibet - my journey fulfilled my destiny as a filmmaker,'' Mr. Xing says.
The recently released documentary, ``Vast Northern Tibet,'' depicts a messianic nationalism behind Beijing's policy toward the Himalayan region. It explains the strong sentiments driving Beijing's efforts to crush with martial law the most violent pro-independence unrest in Tibet in three decades.
Like other Chinese films on Tibet, Xing's movie is valuable for exposing as much about the Chinese behind the camera as it does about the Tibetans in front of the lens.
The documentary illustrates how Tibet and its people beguile many Chinese with a simplicity, piety, and natural purity that they feel lacking in their own society. It shows how many Chinese, while viewing the region as sovereign ground and strategically critical, increasingly see Tibet as a Shangri-La, much as did the first Western travelers to the region early this century.
Filtered with this idealized view, the documentary demonstrates more sympathy for Tibetan culture than do other Chinese films on Tibet. It reflects how Beijing, since 1980, has shown a limited tolerance for the Tibetan traditions that it brutally repressed after annexing the region in 1950.
``Vast Northern Tibet'' also approaches its subject with greater political balance than have other Chinese films, although in the end it applauds China's efforts to pull the impoverished region into the modern world. Despite heavy government censorship, it avoids the extremes of earlier films that have ranged from Maoist chauvinism in the '60s to a sensationalistic portrayal of the rugged Tibetan life style in the '80s.
Earlier Chinese films on Tibet suggested that many Chinese view Tibetans as settlers elsewhere have viewed aboriginal people, imposing their own prejudices or standards on another culture.
In the early '60s, China released a propagandistic feature movie entitled ``Serfs'' that highlighted the excesses of former Tibetan landlords. Through the highly political film, Beijing attempted to justify its violent ``liberation'' of the former theocracy and its efforts to replace Tibetan Buddhism with Maoism.
``A Lover Without Love'' and ``Horse Thief,'' both released this decade, also present Tibetan society as oppressive and backward - fertile ground for a Beijing-sponsored socialist revolution. The former film, a gunslinging ``western,'' exploits the stereotypical roughness of the Tibetan frontier in such a sensationalistic fashion that it was panned by Tibetan officials and banned by the state.
``Horse Thief'' is heavily tinted by the lens of Chinese experience. It portrays the dilemma of a Tibetan who must betray his strong devotion to Buddhism and steal so that his family will survive. The thief's dilemma is a metaphor for how many Chinese during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) had to reconcile Maoist extremism with the need to survive, says a Chinese film critic on condition of anonymity.
``Vast Northern Tibet'' avoids these negative depictions and instead romantically portrays Tibetans and their land. It follows the seasonal journey of herders with their yaks and sheep across the barren landscape. It presents Tibetan monks as they chant Buddhist sutras with an even-handed narration that contrasts with Beijing's long record of hostility toward Tibetan Buddhism. And it underscores the warmth of the nomads: A mother washes the face of her daughter with yak milk in a New Year's Day ritual; a father gives his son a lamb.
The movie presents Tibetans as a pure, mysterious, and deeply religious people, reflecting the disdain among many Chinese youth for the state-sponsored atheism, growing materialism, and betrayal of socialist ideals in China's modernizing society.
``Up until now, this land [northern Tibet] has remained far from our civilization, as if it belongs to another planet,'' the film begins. TIBET ``is mysterious and desolate.'' A herd of yaks ``gives a kind of serenity to this bleak, snow-covered wildness. This serenity pales all suffering into insignificance,'' the narrator says.
Indeed, during the seven months filming the ``high plateau spirit'' of Tibetans, director Xing says he discovered nothing less than the essential goodness of the human spirit.
``After living in Tibet I feel that everything that is best in the human soul has been revealed there by Tibetans,'' Xing says. ``When I arrived in Tibet I felt freed of the thousands of anxieties of city people - life is so simple, one sees the blue sky, sees the grasslands, sees the mountains, and it is the best time for one to reflect on one's past.''
A Chinese reviewer at the official newspaper, Beijing Youth News, was also swept away by the romance of the region. ``In many people's minds, Tibet is a mysterious land, and northern Tibet is even more mysterious,'' the reviewer wrote.
The newspaper hailed Xing for completing ``the first human effort to explore the vast northern Tibet,'' although numerous Chinese and foreign scientists as well as Chinese military officials have surveyed the farthest reaches of the region.
While Xing's journey was not unprecedented, he says making the film required unusual perseverance. The five-member film crew from the Beijing Science Film Education Studio explored the northern plateau in four separate sorties from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, rambling across the grasslands in three Jeeps and a truck. Like the nomads, the team often had to drink from stagnant ponds and eat raw yak meat and mutton, Xing says.
State censorship confronted Xing with an equally formidable challenge. Beijing insisted on the propagandistic climax of the film, a plaudit to China's rule in which separate shots of a Chinese government office, hospital, and policeman briefly interrupt a scene of Tibetan horsemen galloping toward ``a more moving cultural plateau than ever before.''
Intended for overseas distribution, the film hails Beijing's effort to modernize the region while welcoming attempts of Tibetans to preserve their traditional way of life. Thus, it represents a compromise that is critical to the region's development and Sino-Tibetan friendship, Xing says. Yet the film underplays the cultural differences between Tibet and China, which have been affirmed by recent pro-independence demonstrations in the region.