With its devastating title-card statistics and peacefully elegiac third act, Summer Pasture establishes the ritarding cadence of its gasping culture of a subject. Intriguingly, however, the faces of that culture—a group of nomadic Tibetans who raise yak and harvest caterpillar dung from ramshackle tents in the Chinese mountains—resist all but the most vague of ecological or political calls to action. The documentary begins with a series of bewildering balloon pops and tonal shrieks that introduce us to the tribe’s annual crafts festival and (ostensibly) yak rodeo; it then jump cuts severely, almost cruelly, to a nomad isolated against a grassy landscape. We learn later that aside from this congregation and other obligatory, if disorganized, legislative meetings, the nomads hardly ever function as a community. And the testimonies that follow, mostly culled from handheld interviews with a single family—Locho, his wife Yama, and their toddler daughter—as they move through their daily rituals of farming, gathering, and cooking, unsurprisingly possess a unique social gawkiness. So while the film has the plaintive spirit of a humanitarian portrait, directors Lynn True, Nelson Walker, and Tsering Perlo have more valuably developed a time capsule of rural Asian idiosyncrasy.
Locho, whose long, straight black hair, narrow eyes, and ubiquitous poncho give him the appearance of an ultra-tanned Neil Young, discusses with emotionless frankness his frustrations with his inherited way of life. He mentions how his grandmother dissuaded him against schooling in the city: “She told me that kids who move to town don’t learn reading and writing, they only learn bad things,” he remembers, grinning, and then goes on to explain how yak-raising nomads are ostracized in urban areas that intimidate them. (“Even Yaks know where to go,” explains the ruddier Yama when describing a frantic pilgrimage to Lhasa in terms that orient her frustration around the object of her livelihood. “We didn’t even know that [in the city].”) Their agrarian narrowness also puts them at an economic disadvantage: Later, Locho fingers through a pile of caterpillar dung, mystified at why the substance is so coveted and uncomprehending both its utility and its real value.
His sharp but vacant smiles through these confessions grow more and more bemusing as he delves without hesitation into his wife’s only-lightly-diagnosed heart condition and their determined desire to reproduce up to China’s legal allotment of three. It’s one of the few times the elephantine issue of Tibetan nationalism under China’s law is addressed, if tangentially, despite Locho’s toiling in the plateaus of the Sichuan Province—and for him, the arbitrary cap on childbearing becomes a masculine challenge. “If you can’t take care of three children you can’t do anything,” he comments in a self-emasculating tone.
In a brief, quietly centerpiece-like sequence, the couple recount a tragedy of an extramarital affair in which Locho was engaged and the resulting dyad of pregnancies between his wife and mistress. Yama’s voice flattens in monotone as she prosaically describes paying for the woman’s silence with caterpillar dung, then watching her infant subsequently succumb to illness along with the product of a following conception. “I am a bad man,” Locho mumbles, as though he imagines having fulfilled his grandmother’s dark prophecy even without an education. But there’s a silver lining: “My first two kids that died aren’t counted towards my quota,” Yama points out happily, offering her single daughter a bottle. The harrowingly casual nature of this dialogue mutes the intended alarmism of the documentary’s third-act turn toward environmental devastation and the municipal control of Yak farming.
What Locho and Yama have inherited from their 4,000-year-old traditions is a kind of paralysis of ego; they inhabit their domestic spheres seemingly without hope, without dismay, without dignity. (I found myself visualizing Locho’s dalliances as stoic and mythological, attempts at frivolity that he can’t manage once they’re actualized.) Their weird, tiny tent of relics and anachronisms—of bright, indigenous rugs, cassette tapes, and Johnson & Johnson baby powder—is one monsoon, or maybe even one guilt trip from an opportunity-less daughter, from extinction.