At its most elemental, Zhang Yang's humbly beautiful road movie "Paths of the Soul" — about a band of devout Tibetan villagers making the thousand-mile pilgrimage to Lhasa — goes in one direction, like many well-told narratives. And yet, like a lot of better-told stories, that literal/figurative route percolates with questions about the many directions life takes.
After the most casual of conversations on a yak-grazing hillside, farmer Nyima (Nyima Zadui) and his uncle (Yang Pei) agree it's time to make the Buddhist pilgrimage to the holy capital. For the uncle, whose brother died never having made the journey, it would be his first time leaving the village. With that news, they're joined by an assortment of family and friends, male and female, with varying reasons for completing this cherished spiritual trek: to heal the soul, honor those who've died, and in the case of a local butcher, atone for his animal-killing sins. One participant is pregnant. Another is near death. The youngest is an eager little girl.
The beating heart of this months-long walk across some of the world's highest lands is the kowtow ritual, which requires prostrating every few steps in a stride, kneel and touch-the-forehead-to-the-ground motion that looks both surfing-fluid and calisthenically rigorous. Crafted hand planks and thick aprons of animal hide help protect their bodies, even if passing trucks and cars feel like a persistent danger. The inevitable head bumps are even compared and joked about during breaks for tea or sleeping.
What's astonishing about the methodical pace of this journey — paused by tented sleep at night, daytime respites, visits with passing strangers and the imminent birth (which requires a brief return to a hospital) — is the common joy that settles over everyone. You easily feel a part of this tired, determined bunch, and every time Zhang returns to that clapping/chanting/bowing procession, framed against another jaw-dropping, high-altitude vista, the passage feels fresh again.
Using non-professional actors, whom he filmed over a year, Zhang wisely lets the whole journey breathe naturally rather than ask too much of his subjects in establishing a narrative. He doesn't rush to individuate too many of his travelers. We hear a few repeated names and recognize key figures. But the primary feeling is of an interconnected band, never more so than when their tractor becomes incapacitated and they themselves must pull the trailer holding their provisions. (Uphill, they smile and sing; downhill, they laugh, trying to control the momentum.) The movie's physicality is never pushed to suggest suffering. It's like a constant meditation, something to absorb and exhale.
What these pilgrims do for 1,200 kilometers, through mud, water, even a perilous rock slide, through a gray, neon-lit city and past picturesque fields of snow, green and rocky earth breathtakingly captured by cinematographer Guo Daming, seems impossibly hard yet tantalizingly peaceful: the seven-month climb that's also a walk and a prayer. As if connected by an invisible string gently tugged by a high, calm, beckoning force, these dedicated worshipers may occasionally look like specks against an immense landscape. But their sense of community, of duty born simply, fills Zhang's images and makes "Paths of the Soul" like a beautiful stream of human serenity. If you've ever felt lost and been mysteriously relieved by a friendly voice saying, "This way," whatever your faith or spirituality, this patient, majestic movie is for you.
'Paths of the Soul'
In Tibetan with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes