Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) is not a happy Bhutanese camper. You can see it in his "I [heart] NY" T-shirt, in the rock 'n' roll that thumps out of his rickety boogie-box, in the posters of Asian movie stars on the wooden wall of his shack. Dondup wants to be in America, but he's about as far away as a person can be, a government official in a backwater village in a small Himalayan country.
Yet he's sure that something, anything, better than the local fertility ritual is going on in the USA -- apparently he doesn't know about our own versions -- so he sets out to come here. "Travellers and Magicians" is the tale of how far Dondup gets. It's not very far as the crow flies but it's leagues in self-knowledge.
The first feature film to be entirely shot in Bhutan, "Travellers" is the second effort from writer-director Khyentse Norbu, who made the crowd-pleasing "The Cup," about soccer-obsessed Buddhist monks, in 1999. Norbu is also known to his people as His Eminence Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, an incarnate Tibetan Buddhist lama and a member of Bhutanese nobility. That sounds like an awful lot to carry around, but "Travellers" proves that Norbu is a solid if not spectacular filmmaker and that he makes up in directness what he lacks in finesse.
Besides, "Travellers" is a fable and it consciously speaks the language of simplicity. The characters are archetypes, no matter that Dondup is amusingly specific in his pro-American restlessness. Cigarette smoke rises off him like fumes of frustration from a cartoon figure, and he seems in a terrible rush at all times. Fate, of course, decrees that he miss the bus to civilization and has to hoof it down the mountain.
On this journey Dondup meets and travels with an aged apple seller (Ap Dochu), a papermaker (Dasho Adab Sangye), and the papermaker's lovely daughter (Sonam Lhamo). The group also encounters a monk (Sonam Kinga), a sardonic sort who sees right through Dondup's hopes and folly and proceeds to tell him a tale of another young prodigal. This parallel story, filtered through colors that render it timeless, accompanies Dondup's journey in chapters of humorous, clear-eyed moral caution.
The monk's tale concerns Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), a charismatic layabout who bolts his village for adventure and romance. He finds both, and squalidness besides, with an old fisherman (Gomchen Penjore) and his hot-to-trot young wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom). At this point "Travellers and Magicians" rather alarmingly becomes a Buddhist variation on "The Postman Always Rings Twice" -- a film noir unexpectedly projected onto a Kalachakra mandala.
Tashi's story is easily the more compelling half of "Travellers," if only because those scenes are filmed with a verve befitting their melodrama. The sunset-lit peaks that loom in the far background of many shots might make any plot seem richer, but the acting also seems larger, more magnanimous here. Back in the real world, we know full well what Dondup's decision will be, and if that dovetails with the dharma it also smacks of unearned Hollywood happy endings. Norbu addresses heavy themes with a light touch that too often turns lightweight.
Still, anyone interested in Buddhism and the chance to see the high-altitude, deep-spirited landscapes of Bhutan from a movie theater seat is herewith directed to "Travellers and Magicians." And when the monk says "a blossom is only beautiful because it is temporary," they can meditate on the notion that what the director wants to film may not even register on celluloid.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.