Dark Red Forest

Dark Red Forest ★★★★½

A cinematic study of Tibetan Buddhist nuns during a months-long retreat at the Yarchen monastery. It’s the type of arty documentary that I thought would have beautiful shots but not much purpose. Very happy to say that I found Dark Red Forest to be utterly hypnotizing.

And the visuals are indeed spectacular. It’s a gorgeous film, with lots of golden hour/natural lighting that reminded me of Nomadland. There’s one particular shot of a starry night sky that is almost literally unbelievable.

Instead of following a small handful of protagonists, the film shifts from person to person, creating a deep portrait of a tightly knit collective. Despite everyone wearing identical robes and a shaved head, we see that each wear their own pair of socks — a flair of individuality within this insular society. Although these nuns spend much of their time in seclusion, their primary concern is with that wider world, wishing to guide the rest of humanity from afar.

Perhaps wanting to avoid the wrath of government censors, the documentary makes only minor gestures towards destruction: over the past few years, the monastery is slowly being demolished by the Chinese government, and the nuns are forced to re-enter the secular world. The lama tells the nuns to keep up with their prayers every day, "unless sick or stopped by government people." We see propaganda posters urging "national unity" between ethnic groups. Offscreen, the multitude of huts are being destroyed, and consumerism is creeping into the nearby town. Dark Red Forest is both an ethnography and a secret elegy.

The virtual Q&A with director Jin Huaqing was in parts fascinating and depressing. Jin lamented, at length, the death of auteurist documentary filmmaking in China, and studiously avoided any direct discussion of Tibet’s political situation.

Given the subject and apparent style, it's somewhat understandable that, in a very under the radar New Directors/New Films, this film has the least views on Letterboxd. Certainly deserves a large audience. It's not a super accessible film to get into but then again, neither is much of the lineup of this years ND/NF.

NDNF 2021 #12

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