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Film Review: ‘Becoming Who I Was’

Variety logo Variety 5/6/2017 Dennis Harvey
© Provided by Variety

Being chosen by fate as the reincarnation of a fabled spiritual master might seem great good fortune, but in fact it turns out to be a considerable burden in “Becoming Who I Was.” Chang-Yong Moon and Jin Jeon’s documentary, a Grand Prix winner at Berlin, spends eight years in the company of a Ladakhi boy pronounced the latest incarnation of a high-ranking Tibetan monk. His appointed destiny is to be reunited with that predecessor’s monastic order — but seemingly insurmountable geographic, political, financial and other obstacles lie between him and that goal. A charmingly intimate portrait that ultimately assumes epic-journey proportions, this deserving crowd-pleaser should benefit from Western art-house audiences’ fondness for all things Tibetan Buddhist. An hour-long broadcast edit is also available.

Cherub-faced Padma Angdu is said to have been just 5 years old when he began inexplicably spouting “memories” attributable to the life and wisdoms of an illustrious, long-dead monk. Already dedicated to a religious path (a typical choice for eldest sons hereabouts), he was pronounced a Rinpoche — a reincarnate or “Living Buddha” — and placed under the wing of guardian/godfather Urgyan Rickzen, a local lama as well as a traditional doctor. Urgyan became Padma’s servant as well as tutor — for a Rinpoche is automatically “master” to any ordinary monk. Nonetheless, Padma remains a little boy, Urgyan his senior by more than half a century, and their dynamic is primarily that of a mutually doting parent and child.

Despite the excitement and curiosity of having such a figure in their community, the residents of Padma’s remote village in northernmost India have limited use for a supposed spiritual phenomenon in boy form. For reasons not entirely clear, Padma has already been booted from the local monastery when we first meet him in earnest as a fifth-grader in 2013. This leaves the sixtysomething Urgyan his sole instructor, as well as caregiver and pretty much everything else. (Padma’s mother appears to live some distance away, as she only sees him occasionally.) The hope is that word of the boy’s special status will somehow reach the monastery associated with the person he’s reincarnated. They’ll then send a representative to “claim him,” and return him to his rightful home.

Unfortunately, that home is in Tibet — not an impossible distance from Ladakh as the crow flies, but crows don’t have to confront the Chinese government’s vise-like hold on the hitherto autonomous region. And China particularly disapproves of Tibetan monks, who have become international symbols of resistance. As Padma approaches adolescence, his seeming inability to realize an appointed destiny provokes new skepticism among locals, as well as some overdue rebelliousness in the lad himself. It also stirs a new urgency in Urgyan, who isn’t getting any younger, and must decide if the duo can attempt to reach Tibet on their own, without any monetary or other external support.

That journey — by foot, thumb, train and bus, to name a few — comprises the suddenly sprawling final section of the documentary, which until then is largely limited to Urgyan and Padma’s humble mountain hut. Moon and Jeon (abetted only by drone shots) fully capture the hazardous passage they shared with their subjects (while staying off-camera), including a harrowing trek over mountains in thigh-deep snow.

The endearing, guileless personalities of the two principals constitute much of the film’s appeal. The directors wisely choose not to question the credibility of Padma’s status as a chosen one (though fellow villagers apparently do), and the film’s packaging is bright, brisk and harmonious. Its sole misstep is a treacly piano-based score by Jung-Il Seo that would better suit a South Korean romantic comedy or tearjerker.

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