REVIEW: La lampe au beurre de yak [Butter Lamp] [2014]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 15 minutes | Release Date: 2014 (China)
Studio: AMA Productions / Goya Entertainment
Director(s): Wei Hu
Writer(s): Wei Hu

“Go and look at yourself on the photos”

The butter lamp is a traditional feature of Tibetan temples and monasteries as a representation of wisdom’s illumination. The light removes the darkness of the mind to focus it and aid meditation. As Buddhists ignite a number of these lamps for funerals and pilgrimages as a way to help the nomads and visitors approach God and the deceased, writer/director Wei Hu utilizes a photographer’s myriad backdrops to allow the world to approach them. These “posters” run the gamut between one of the Dali Lama’s old residences Potala Palace in Lhassa to the entrance of Disney World with every character positioned in greeting. All those unable to leave their village in the Himalayas are now afforded the opportunity to visit with their minds if not their bodies.

Hu presents this process with a single vantage point in La lampe au beurre de yak [Butter Lamp]—his photographer’s (Genden Punstok) camera lens. This young man travels from village to village, bringing the Tibetan nomads he meets the manufactured colors of locales they will never see first-hand. Families pose for the portraits, newly weds mime atop a motorcycle with a fictitious home behind, and the mayor’s mother sits as though at the beach once her son’s first pick proves too religiously sacred for her to look away. This is the power of images. Of make-believe becoming a spiritual moment some have been waiting their entire lives to experience. We look at it as a farce because we can go there or mock something up on our computers. But for these villagers this is the closest they’ll ever be to sights from their dreams.

The subjects posing change, their backdrops switch, and the photographer does his best to make everyone comfortable and smiling as though the orchestrator of a fleeting vacation. We listen to conversations as though flies on the wall to their foreign ideas of religion and honor in wardrobe, attitude, and overall appearance. But the most profound reality—and Hu knows it only too well with his final lingering gaze—is that these people reside in a land we can only hope to one day witness. The majesty of Tibet’s mountains is something the neon lights of Hong Kong or feathered costumes of Disney cannot compare. In a way Hu’s photographer’s backdrops become butter lamps for us too, each illuminating a wonder the First World takes for granted in order to comprehend the beauty found in everything.

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