This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on April 7, 2021
Tenzin (Tsering Tashi Gyalthang) is an entrepreneur looking to open a coffee shop in Kathmandu – he knows what he wants: the right combination of location, atmosphere, and good coffee, in some ways the very things that western coffee culture (which has spread worldwide) offers. His friend, Jachung (Tulku Kungzang), understands some of what Tenzin is looking for: trendy coffee and stylish serving-ware he can understand, but he grows increasingly stressed by the locations Tenzin feels are suitable, finding them too steeped in an ominous tradition or folklore that Tenzin rejects.
Tenzin, though, experiences a series of troubling dreams or visions, and Jachung seeks out a monk he has heard of to intepret them and give Tenzin some guidance. Tenzin’s first reaction is to reject what the monk tells him, particularly as the first dream he tells the monk about – a dream of him in a field of flowers – has the monk suggesting that this is a warning to Tenzin that he is reaching the end of his life-force. The monk asks for more details, Tenzin refuses, at first, to give them.
Director Khyentse Norbu’s films often explore the theme of the traditional as it meets modernity. In The Cup, novice monks with a passion for football desperately try to get a television to bring to their remote monastery in the Himalayas so they can watch the 1998 World Cup final. In Travellers and Magicians, a young government official dreams of escaping his isolated village and getting a visa to go to the United States – but when he misses the only bus out of town, he sets out to hitchhike to the visa interview, and has a series of visions along the way, visions in which Buddhist wisdom and traditional Nepalese folklore serve to guide the young man.
In Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache, Tenzin and his friend Jachung stand on two sides of a divide between modernity (Tenzin) and the traditional (Jachung). What connects them is the mysterious monk Tenzin first visits to learn more about his visions. Tenzin’s initial reluctance gives way to a need to learn the meaning of his visions. The monk suggests Tenzin can change his fate if he can meet a dakini — a female embodiment of enlightened energy in Buddhism.
The monk, of course, is a bridge figure between these two ideas. He grew up in Canada, he tells Tenzin, eating boxed cereal – and it’s the cereal (that he still eats in Nepal) that he believes will stand in the way of him reaching enlightenment. Dressed in traditional Buddhist monk’s robes, he has a flashy set of headphones around his neck and sports a cool set of sunglasses. When he consults with Tenzin about the visions, he uses a tablet (“to consult the Omniscient Google”) as he tries to interpret what Tenzin tells him he’s seen. But the monk is sure of one thing: Tenzin will die, probably on the next Saturday (though he advises Tenzin to wait until Sunday if he can, otherwise nine members of his family will follow him). He offers a solution though: Tenzin may be able to change this fate if he can find a dakini. The monk is sure that Tenzin, if he chooses to search, could find a dakini in Kathmandu. Tenzin is reluctant to believe the monk’s prediction, but the monk points Tenzin to the Master of Left Hand Lineage (Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche), who guides Tenzin’s quest. Along the way, Tenzin must confront his own fears and attachments, as well as his connection to the modern world and a way of living that favours speed and distraction over more spiritual pursuits.
Norbu’s film is languorous and at times offers us a sense of bewilderment, as it echoes the quest that Tanzin undertakes. Tanzin, as he searches the streets of Kathmandu for the elusive dakini, is just as confused as we are, and the film allows us to learn at the same time he does – Tanzin figuratively holds our hand as both he and we gain understanding. The film’s cinematography is lush and gorgeous – not surprising from Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing, whose work includes In the Mood for Love, Norwegian Wood, The Assasin, Renoir, and many other beautiful films. Looking for a Lady With Fangs and a Moustache, with its mystical atmosphere and a main character struggling to access meaning through a kind of spiritual quest, grounds us even as much of our modern lives serves to distance us from what really matters.
There will be a virtual screening of the film followed by a Q&A with the director at the Rubin Museum of Art on April 8th, 2021. Starting on April 9th, 2021, interested viewers can book virtual tickets for the film to watch it at home.