Film review: Tharlo lingers in the mind


Stunning black and white cinematography encompass this tale of a simple Tibetan sheep herder named Tharlo (Shide Nyima) whose identity is slowly shaped by his experience of those around him as he visits a nearby town to obtain a photo ID card.

Directed by Pema Tseden, Tharlo is an observational tale that reflects upon the changing face of Tibetan society in which traditionalism and modernism collide. The sharp contrasts provided by the use of black and white along with city and sheep herding life evoke in viewers a sense of nostalgia and a sort of reflective longing to hold on to past traditions in which culture has been shaped on.

Seeped in a traditional palate of black and white, Tharlo contains still moments of reflectivity in which Tharlo, known for most of his life as ‘ponytail’, is alone and simply present. The scenes appear almost as photographs embedded in the ever-changing story, which is filled with stimulation provided by the busyness of city sounds, characters, and misunderstandings.

Tseden presents viewers with the concept of identity and whether identity is shaped by oneself or by societal influence. The contrasts created by the conflicting world views, beliefs and upbringings cause you to reflect upon the influence of society’s perception of the individual.

Tharlo, a sheep herder in his 40s, is a simple character that seems to embody the uncertainty so many Tibetan people are holding onto, the past traditions in which culture has been formed but is seen to slowly decline as the world shifts and changes around them. A young female hairdresser Tharlo meets is one example of this as her youthfulness challenges his traditional perceptions.

The simplicity of the black and white palate used in the film enhance elements of sound, composition and framing providing a story in which aspects of traditionalism, obedience and culture are challenged.

As the world in which Tharlo has built for himself slowly shifts by the conclusion of this observational tale, Tseden presents to us a film that is structured as if both reflective and predictive piece of filmmaking. At times you’re plagued with a sense of uncertainty similar to that of how Tharlo feels throughout the narrative, other times you’re overwhelmed by the beauty of such picturesque scenes that you slowly forget to notice the subtle changes as they slowly creep in.

In a conversation between Tharlo and a policeman who provides him with his identification card, there are aspects of which embody opposing world views situated at the beginning and end of the film. The changes are subtle and although almost all the elements are there, the use of a flipped frame changes the writing on the wall from conveying the meaning of a character meaning ‘man’ to ‘enter’. As an art form in regards to language the poetic use of Chinese characters when used as a technique in film is not simply a reversal of frame but rather a reestablishment of characters and their relationship. The power dynamic between two characters in the film, Tharlo seen as representative of man as the individual and the policeman perceived as modern society or authoritative power, shifts from carrying a welcoming tone in the beginning of the film to that of one that is more abrupt and forceful in nature. This combined with the use of framing which visually separates Tharlo from the policeman alters the scene, placing characters in different roles and creating a perception that they are to be viewed differently and that the same scene or situation has now changed.

The beginning and end of the film share elements of which beautifully package it as if poetry, echoing moments shown at the start of the film and allowing viewers to reflect upon them as the conclusion is reached. There is a beautiful uncertainty, a sense of confusion and disorientation when an individual’s need to connect or belong within society is challenged by the need to hold on to what makes an individual unique or special. Tharlo presents to us a slowly shifting system of belief from the traditional to the modern which lingers in the mind of the viewer long after the credits have rolled.

Tharlo screens as part of the Sydney Film Festival, this Sunday 12 June 2:15pm at Dendy Circular Quay. For more about SFF and to buy tickets, head to their website: 



Review by Addy Fong.