.Is She the One?

Enigmatic Nepalese film is a welcome surprise for weary movie fans

Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache is the most unusual title of the season. And this remarkable film from Nepal is just as agreeably enigmatic as its label would suggest—a combination ethnographic/spiritual/wryly comic “quest” tale about living in the present, and how difficult that can be.

Tenzin, an aspiring Kathmandu businessman, wants to open up a coffee shop in that fabled cultural Himalayan capital. However, Tenzin (played by Tsering Tashi Gyalthang) suffers from a deficit of will. Something about the decaying old building he chose for the shop bothers him and his friend Jachung (Tulku Kungzang). It’s a spooky, cobwebby ruin; the sort of place that gives off ominous vibes from its past as a Buddhist shrine, and its reputation as the “womb of the goddess.”

Just entering into the abandoned shrine causes Tenzin to recall his recent dream of death, as well as the location’s connection to the cult of the dakini, a potentially dangerous manifestation of the female spirit in ancient Hindu and Buddhist mythology. This shock of spiritual foreboding sets Tenzin off on a rambling, seemingly unhurried quest—compared to the Western method of dealing with a curse—to placate the goddess and restore his own balance. The prospect of encountering a capricious demonic force intimidates and obsesses him.

In lesser hands than those of writer-director Khyentse Norbu—the Bhutanese maker of such Buddhism-centered films as The Cup and Travelers & Magicians—Tenzin’s predicament might have been the launching pad for a monster flick or even a silly urban sitcom. In more than one sense the story has the shape of a typical American romantic comedy: a man chases the image of an ideal woman, clumsily, but they both fall in love and live happily ever after. That’s just another illusion. Filmmaker Norbu, a monk and teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, is content to ignore the most obvious distractions and focus on the befuddled, rather comical Tenzin, as he continues his worried pursuit of the sacred feminine.

Tenzin roams the Kathmandu metropolitan area, growing increasingly disheveled and desperate by the minute. A succession of beautiful women pass in the street. Could that woman in yellow be the one? Could that one? He consults a holy man, the Master of the Left Hand Lineage (played by a genuine lama, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche), wrapped in a sheet, who offers tantalizing riddles. Is Tenzin’s quest real or merely symbolic? “If everyone believed they only had seven days to live,” declares the Master, “the world would be peaceful.” A smirking Tibetan monk (Ngawang Tenzin) seemingly lurks around every corner. In his mirrored aviator shades he’s the very portrait of the eternal trickster—possibly a reincarnation of Hunter S. Thompson?

Everywhere he goes, Tenzin faces the spectacle of Western “spiritual hipsters” sipping tea and chasing their individual karmas in the kind of coffee shops he wants to start for himself. The tourists naturally come in for their share of ridicule. Opines the monk to Tenzin: “You’ve got the brains of a yellow-haired person. They are slaves of reason.” Ironic humor is never very far from the surface.

Looking for a Lady, an international co-production by companies from Nepal, Mexico and Singapore, knows its art house audience well enough to wrap its quixotic playfulness in gorgeous cinematography—by Ping Bin Lee, who shot Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Filmed entirely on location in Kathmandu, the settings have an intoxicating authenticity. But filmmaker Norbu is in search of more than mere aesthetic pleasure. Tenzin is a caricature of the ideal “citizen of the world,” mindful of the latest trends—he wants his business venture to be featured on Lonely Planet and Instagram—yet connected to his spiritual roots, no matter what. He’s clearly haunted, and we’re intrigued alongside him. Tenzin may indeed be a fool, but he’s our fool.

Streaming from the Roxie Cinema and the Smith Rafael Film Center.
East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition