Pema Tseden: Tell the “Known” Story from an “Aloof” Perspective

Pema Tseden’s creative career started with writing. He has published literary works since 1991, and has published a collection of novels “Enticement”, “The Silent Holy Stones”, “Tharlo”, “Jinpa”, “Teeth”, etc., which have been translated into many languages and distributed overseas; in 2002, Pema Tseden started film editing and directing. His main film works include “The Silent Holy Stones”, “The Search”, “Old Dog”, “The Sacred Arrow”, “Tharlo”, “Jinpa”, “Balloon”, etc., winning dozens of domestic and foreign film awards.


Adaptation is translation 

When he was a child, he listened to folk stories told by the old, and developed a keen interest in literature. The way Tibetans tell stories, and the unique story characters have become the source of inspiration for Pema Tseden. In 1991, Pema Tseden contributed the novel “Man and Dog” to a magazine when he was studying literature at the university. After a semester, he received a sample publication and a royalty of more than a dozen yuan. This was his first work publicly published. “I was particularly excited at the time, just as when I participated in SIFF with my first film.”

So far, Pema Tseden has published more than 60 novels in Tibetan and Chinese. In 2002, Pema Tseden entered the Beijing Film Academy to study and began to write scripts. “The previous writing experience is very helpful to script creation. You can deconstruct a story better, build a character, and promote a plot. Even the dialogue can be written more refined.”

There is no doubt that Pema Tseden’s writing background has profoundly influenced his film creation, and many of his film works are adapted from his novels. When asked about the considerations of adapting a novel into a movie, Pema Tseden replied that this is based on the professional judgment of a film director. “I have a lot of novels, and some of them may not be suitable for adaptation into movies. There must be many comprehensive reasons for this. The same is true when reading other people’s novels. You will make a subconscious judgment. For example, “Jinpa”. I first read Tsering Norbu’s short story “The Killer,” and I thought it was a novel that is particularly suitable for film adaptation. This judgment is based on your knowledge and understanding of the film. I think adaptation is like translation. “

What’s interesting is that the film creation has in turn influenced Pema Tseden’s literary creation. “When I am a director myself, the lines must be very refined, which is very helpful for the later creation of novels. There was a large amount of description in my literary works before, and other methods may in need to advance plots, but after you watch a lot of movies and write some scripts, you will find such a goal can be achieved through dialogue, such as how to promote the plot, and then how to explain the causes and consequences of the characters. In fact, it is very helpful to the creation of novels.”


Stay objective and extend from your familiar culture 

His director career started with short films. “The Silent Holy Stones” and “Prairie” were all short films shot to finish homework at first. The reason why I chose Tibetan subjects is because I have personal experience of what I want to express, and then express my feelings. “Although “The Silent Holy Stones” is not about the hometown where I was born, when you watch this film, you will feel that there are many emotions in it, including the elderly, family relationships, etc., which may resemble the family’s warmth, and the elderly’s care for you that have touched you when you were young.”

Pema Tseden said that he had the same feeling when he watched director Rey’s “Apu Trilogy” – “Song of the Little Road” and “The Unvanquished”, and “The World of Apu”. There are so many touching things as you watch it, as if those stories happened in your own village. So, good works can indeed bring a lot of touches.”

Pema Tseden’s short films, whether it’s “Prairie” or “The Silent Holy Stones”, have touched teachers at Beijing Film Academy, and they suggested expanding it into a feature film. In Pema Tseden’s view, the expression of “Prairie” has been completed, and the length of the short film is actually appropriate; but when it comes to “The Silent Holy Stones”, there are more things he wants to express, and this expansion was completed after 4 years.

“The Silent Holy Stones”, “The Search” and “Old Dog” are known as Pema Tseden’s “Hometown Trilogy”. The films’ exquisite description of the customs of his hometown has moved fans all over the world. How to make more audiences understand and like things that you love and are not so popular? In addition to the story itself, Pema Tseden said that what he did was to establish a sense of aloofness from the culture he was familiar with, and he had to jump out and look at this culture. “Because I grew up in such an environment and then left that environment, I feel a sense of distance when I look back at my hometown. Many things may be more novel, in a more calm and objective perspective. I think I want to establish such a perspective that you present the subject matter of the story you want to tell objectively and calmly.”


Find the most suitable format for the story  

This deliberate “distance” is not only reflected in Pema Tseden’s storytelling, but also in his bold film expression techniques. Pema Tseden explained to the audience that when faced with a subject of interest, the first thing he thought about was how to find a suitable method for presenting the subject. Just like for the same subject matter, different writers in the history of literature writing present totally different final results, “I think it is related to their presentation methods and forms.”

For example, in the film “Tharlo”, Pema Tseden unexpectedly uses black and white narrative. “Because on the one hand, the video works in Tibetan areas in the past were more colorful, and the pictures and things will be relatively gorgeous, and even very attractive to me. I want to remove these eye-catching things, restore the original things, and highlight the characters in the story, black and white movies can achieve this effect. The main reason is that it is related to the attributes of the actor and his worldview. He has gone through such an era which left traces on him. His attitude towards the world, the way of thinking and dealing with things is very simple, that is, either black or white. So, black and white is the ideal choice to present this kind of person, and this kind of worldview.”

In “Jinpa”, Pema Tseden uses three colors to highlight and remind the relationship between time and space. There are three kinds of time and space in the film, one is the real time and space in progress, the other is the time and space of memories, and the other is the dream. “For the reality, we use color; when we recall, we use black and white; when we dream, we will see that the color is very gorgeous, which is closer to the colorful qualities of dreams. In addition, the transitions from real space-time to memory space-time, and from real space-time to dream space-time, all have to go through special treatment of colors.”

In “Tharlo”, Pema Tseden uses a black and white fixed long lens, trying to refer to the position of the character in different living environments through the position of the character in the picture. “When he was on the mountain, he was the center of the world; when he arrived in the small town, he was very marginalized. You can clearly see the character’s status in a certain space by looking at his position in the picture.” But in “Balloon”, Pema Tseden first used the photography style of hand-held long lens to express the restless state of the characters. “Every character is in a state of restlessness. A fixer will not work to shoot characters in such a state.”