EAFFI 2024 | Snow Leopard Marks A Worthy Farewell From Tibet’s Premier Filmmaker

Snow Leopard, the final film completed by Tibetan director Pema Tseden, is a drama of inaction.

A first-class protected animal in China, snow leopards can be neither killed nor captured. When one is trapped in a pen after killing nine rams, disparate interests converge on a small farm on the Tibetan plateau. The farmer, Jinpa, will kill the animal unless he receives what he believes is his due compensation. While he recognises the traditional interrelation between his people and the leopard, the value of the stock lost overrules his respect. His father, Aku, wants to let the animal go. Snow leopards, legend has it, are mountain spirits. This initial disagreement is generational, articulated as a dispute between simple accounting and local superstition. That a regional television crew is drawn to the farm should be no surprise, given the human-interest potential of the scenario. Any simple dichotomy is complicated as additional parties arrive. Tseden pits economics against ecology and the regional against the central, all cast against a spiritual call.

The television crew suggests that the situation can be rendered into a spectacle for public consumption. Their presence organises our attention, directing us as spectators towards the snow leopard. They are introduced on a drive that may as well be to a holiday, their gregarious nature easing them into our confidence. That they are regional means they speak Tibetan, though they switch easily into Mandarin for recording. I found myself wanting a more discerning ear, to better pick out the shifts in language. One of the key conflicts in the drama is between the individual (the local) and the state (the central). The individual is immediately present, embedded in tradition and the always growing struggle to subsist. Against this, and cast against the sparsely populated region, the state remains abstract. Distance collapses and the protected status of the animal is rendered personal to Jinpa. Moreover, in a punchline that works everywhere, the anticipated state representatives arrive a day late. Official channels enforce passivity. When the snow leopard loses its novelty, the animal slips into the background of its own story.

Left simply as a generational dispute, or as one between the centre and the periphery, Snow Leopard would have little to recommend it. Tseden, however, offers a more interesting line of thinking in the figure of the Snow Leopard Monk. The monk earned his appellation after an image he took of a snow leopard caught the public eye. In his dark red robes, camera slung across his shoulder, Snow Leopard Monk suggests a meeting of the spiritual and the material. His superiors express a fear that his photographic pursuits will interfere with his duties, introducing a tension into the simple valorisation of the photographic. As spirit is not reducible to image, neither is the image sufficient to the materiality of the subject. A more direct encounter is demanded; one neither captured through a long lens nor from the end of a weapon. The monk is alone in his willingness to meet the snow leopard as itself a fellow being. What follows is an exquisite sequence from the perspective of the animal.


It is through the monk that we gain access to this moment of imaginative projection. I hesitate to call it empathy, as we only experience the snow leopard in relation to our own (human) interests. We understand the leopard insofar as we understand both what the leopard is doing to our things and what we do to it in turn. Nature is more than our experience of it. Spirit is other than image.

Snow Leopard risks, however, a surfeit of beauty. The setting itself is stunning. Tseden and Matthias Delvaux, his director of photography, avoid fetishising the natural environment, though, as attention drifts away from the leopard, the camera slips into panorama. This is the limit of the so-called immersive quality associated with the visual language employed. The more memorable sequences feature close-ups, not least facilitated by the camera crew, with whom characters can directly address an audience. While this allows the imaginative projection into the leopard attained by Snow Leopard Monk, the technique is less able to situate characters within a place.

Admittedly, a more critical, distanced camera would have resulted in a self-consciously ‘art house style.’ Tseden’s and Delvaux’s signatures would be lost, the leopard another object in space, and interest in the film scarce. This leaves us with the tension between an immersive camera and a drama of inaction, between a method demanding movement and a scenario limiting it. The strands gathered around the leopard are not always compelling, but Snow Leopard is a worthy farewell.

Snow Leopard will screen at Dublin’s Irish Film Institute (IFI) Saturday, March 9th, as part of the East Asia Film Festival Ireland (www.eaffi.ie)

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