Pema Tseden’s Tharlo bears an improbable, even uncanny, likeness to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. It’s not just because of its striking black-and-white cinematography, but for the ways in which Tseden dramatizes the perils of modernity in the simplest of ways. In the Murnau film, a married man is enraptured by the vampy city woman who brings his most sordid drives to the surface. Suddenly a settled life becomes completely unmoored by the possibility of the new. The eponymous man (Pema Tseden) in Tseden’s film, a ponytailed sheep herder with a lamb for a pet and a very good memory for reciting Comrade Mao’s speeches, is similarly undone by the temptations of a short-haired city girl (Yang Shik Tso), a mermaid of sorts who lures him away from the righteous loneliness of the farm and the discipline of his craft.
While the temptress from Sunrise drives the man to consider drowning his own wife, Tharlo’s capitulation to the dangers of a woman with a plan and a weak sense of ethics seems as if it can only bring about his own demise and that of his herd. A scene where Tharlo gets his hair washed by his siren echoes Sunrise’s classic salon sequence, where the wife, now safe from the husband’s bout with murderousness, watches him get a fancy hot shave. The wonders, and the most fundamental feature, of Tseden’s film lie in the plainness of its narrative, which essentially consists of Tharlo’s ultimately Kafkaesque attempts at getting an official ID card made.
The steps to producing such visible and institutional proof of who Tharlo is—from getting his hair washed by the temptress so as to look presentable for the ID card, to paying for it at the local police station—should, presumably, be quick and straightforward. But Tseden, like his main character, soaks in every moment with the boredom-defying curiosity—the fertile patience—of an Abbas Kiarostami or Apichatpong Weerasethakul protagonist.
Throughout, scenes persist, like a tableau, until every possibility for poesis has been extinguished; the steps for Tharlo’s ID card to be produced are delayed, providing ample opportunity for him to lose his sense of self in the process. Ingeniously, by the time the card is made, Tharlo, worn-out and now sans ponytail, no longer coincides with the identity the card is meant to represent; the events that followed the taking of the photograph have unsettled him to the point that he no longer resembles his original self.
Tseden’s camera is so respectful of the inner drama of his characters, so deferential to their suffering, that it locks itself into place, as if stunned. The camera remains static as Tharlo walks into the photo studio and waits his turn. It stays still as the photographer takes portraits of an impassive couple, ordering her assistant to change the various backgrounds for the photographs; one moment we’re in front of the Tiananmen in Beijing, the next in New York City. The camera doesn’t dare to move either when the flirty hairdresser who massages Tharlo’s skull concocts a plan to profit off of the many sheep that he claims to own. The camera even lingers, dutifully immobile, when Tharlo picks up smoking, when he has a coughing fit, when he snores, when he puts his clothes back on post-coitus.
Uninitiated audiences may be oblivious to nuances that seem important here, such as references to Tibetan girls not normally smoking cigarettes, or wearing their hair short. But the film’s visceral message—the frailty of man, so easily unraveled by the deceitful availability of strangers, so perpetually paralyzed by bureaucracy—is undeniably brewing in the slowness of every frame. In the logic of the film, for the camera to move at all would feel like a betrayal of its contemplative hunger, an unsettling indulgence, not unlike the cropping of a painting which could only be grasped through its totality.