by Maya Rudolph
This review contains spoilers.
Tharlo, Pema Tsenden’s noir-inflected romance, is a story of identity, a journey of the self in black and white. A Tibetan shepherd known by his eponymous “Ponytail” travels from his rural home to a small city in Qinghai Province in reluctant pursuit of an ID card—the documentation all Chinese rely on to designate their residency. His never-used given name is Tharlo and, though he’s easygoing, Ponytail isn’t convinced that he needs an ID. “I know who I am,” he says plainly. “Isn’t that enough?” But it’s not enough—at least not for Tseden to set the stakes for Tharlo’s journey into the miasma of the city. A conversation of the heaviness of life and death plays out in the bureau office of Chief Dorjie, a friendly Tibetan cop who compliments Tharlo’s formidable recitation of Mao’s “Serve the People.” As the men reflect on the line “To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai,” Tharlo tells Dorjie he’s confident that his own way of serving the people, tending his flock of sheep, will bring Mount Tai-volume gravity to his death when the time comes.
In the city, Ponytail tries on his urban identity as Tharlo. Accompanied by an orphaned lamb he carries in a satchel, Tharlo waits his turn in a photography studio and watches a couple pose, first against a painted backdrop of Tian’anmen Square and then a boxy, distorted representation of the New York City skyline. Tseden presents the discrete, static spaces of an urban town through reflections and cropped frames that betray Tharlo’s discomfort with the unfamiliar customs of city life. Played with a plainspoken good humor by Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima, Tharlo is a good sport of ineffable age who seems at home in himself, if not in his surroundings.
But when it’s Tharlo’s turn to have his likeness captured, the photographer finds his hygiene wanting, and so he gamely heads across the street to have his hair washed and tidied. It’s in a dingy barbershop that Tharlo meets a very pretty hairdresser whose direct, modern style makes a deep impression. She flirts with him, massages his head with shampoo, and compliments his “cute ponytail.” If naive, mild-mannered Tharlo is a classic noir archetype of the hapless stranger, the hairdresser’s sideways smile marks her as Tibetan cinema’s foremost femme fatale. She invites Tharlo to join her for a night of karaoke, where Tharlo stumbles through the ultimate urban paradox of good and evil: a first date. The private karaoke room, all laser disco lights and tinny pop songs, is claustrophobic and disorienting for Tharlo. They spend the night in the barbershop and it’s only the next morning when we see her body lean in for a goodbye kiss, or to whisper something, that we learn her name: Yangtso.
Tharlo returns home to his isolated mountain home and Tseden’s camera opens up to the grand sweep of a lonely figure beneath staggering peaks and endless sky. Tharlo tells Dorjie that he thinks he’s met a bad person in the city, but it’s clear that Yangtso weighs on his thoughts even while the familiar evils of the steppe make trouble for Tharlo and his sheep. At home, he drinks and smokes himself to uncontrollable coughing fits, sets off fireworks to break the stillness of the night, and teaches himself to sing folk love songs. Eventually, he capitulates to temptation, or curiosity, and returns to the city with a stack of cash. Tharlo and Yangtso decide to run away together—to really see Beijing, or even New York City—but not before Yangtso divests Ponytail of his namesake in favor of a more anonymous look.
While assured black and white photography and the contrasting scale of urban and rural geography create a compelling visual language, the truth of Pema Tseden’s narrative is heard rather than seen. The sleepy world of the steppe, punctuated by bleating sheep, is delineated from the city’s static of cheesy music and diesel engines by the puttering of Tharlo’s motorbike, the sounds fully realized even at long distance. In the city, where every image is reframed and refracted in windows and the literal smoke and mirrors of the barbershop, only sound emerges trustworthy. Tharlo’s identity is made and unmade in exterior sounds: the cry of his little orphan sheep; his hacking cough; the ugly sonic bleed of the karaoke bar; the loud hum of electric razor Yangtso uses to shave Tharlo’s head. When Tharlo wakes up the morning after his haircut to find Yangtso and his fortune gone, he barely appears in our mirrored view of the empty barbershop. It is the sound of him opening and closing drawers, a shuffling of objects grown increasingly frantic that confirms the betrayal.
Returning to Chief Dorjie’s bureau, a traumatized Tharlo learns that his ID card has finally arrived. His head shaved by the woman who destroyed him, our hero finds that his identity is null—he no longer resembles the man on the ID card. He’ll have to go back to the photographer and start all over again. “I’m afraid now my death will be lighter than a feather,” Tharlo despairs, now a stranger to himself.
Tharlo is a story of crushing themes and bald questions of identity, a cautionary tale with an iron spine of rightness gone wrong, but Tseden manages to guide this adaptation of his own novella with an even hand. Heaviness and lightness are juggled in the measured pacing, the story of a man’s undoing told simply, but not without irony or an appreciation for the exquisite awkwardness of courtship. In his initial appraisal of Tharlo as a good man, Chief Dorjie claims to possess a policeman’s intuition for assessing a person as good or bad on sight, a ludicrous claim that nonetheless tortures Tharlo as his own image changes, molded by the perceptions of others and reduced to ambiguity.
Certainly, questions of Tibetan identity in a Chinese infrastructure cement the story’s context, but the influence of politics and modernity is inexorable from Tharlo and Yangtso’s graceless love story. Brazen Yangtso is an impalpable figure and Tharlo’s attraction to and repulsion by her are the least of her contradictions. She is a Tibetan woman liberated from (or deprived of) her traditional long braids, a Tibetan women who smokes and sings pop songs and flirts easily, a modern Tibetan woman in a Western Chinese city. While the ID card is an obvious metaphor for Tharlo’s fractured identity, the truth of his crisis is manifest in Yangtso. As a Tibetan woman, her physical being is familiar, but Tharlo comes undone when her behavior takes a wrecking ball to his binary convictions, his sense of the world and ability to know himself.
In the moments after Yangtso shaves Tharlo’s head, she sits beside him in a barber chair, each captured in separate, adjacent mirrors. Her posture is casual, sizing up this man. Tharlo’s troubles may originate in the dangerous act of classification—making physical ones identity in the form of a state-issued card—but romance is another kind of identity crisis. Infatuation is a black hole. And love can dismantle a person, no matter who they think they are.