The first feature filmed entirely in Bhutan, Travellers & Magicians is nationalism gone Zen a gentle challenge to the all-American delusion that every citizen of a foreign land would be better off here.
The idea is up for debate as a bored government officer named Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) packs up his boom box and hurries to catch a bus that'll represent the first leg of his voyage to America, the land of girls and money. Missing the bus by inches, Dondup has no choice but to embark on a hitchhiking adventure that gradually nets him some unwanted company. His new travelmates include a quiet apple seller, a rice-paper vendor and his daughter, and a mouthy young monk who doesn't hide his suspicion of Dondup's wanderlust. Why abandon a good job in a lovely land like Bhutan to wash dishes in the States, the monk challenges, even at the prospect of better pay?
You can feel director Khyentse Norbu (The Cup) priming to grind that hoary battle-ax, There's No Place Like Home, but the monk advances his point by telling Dondup a story with a somewhat subtler message. The tale, which filmmaker Norbu depicts as a series of beautifully eerie sub-narratives, tells what happened when a lazy student got lost in the wilderness and had to bunk down with an abusive old man and his gorgeous young wife. The ensuing soap operatics, related during the more restful moments in the hitchhikers' journey, might be a sincere warning against uppityness or they could simply represent playful devil's advocacy on the part of the mischievous monk.
Norbu (who is recognized as a reincarnated lama at home) refuses to spoon-feed us an answer. Though his film is slow and not particularly complex, it culminates in a philosophical coin-toss that could take Dondup in almost any direction. At the risk of sounding like a parvenu Buddhist, Norbu obviously knows what he'd like his characters to do, but respects them enough to let them make a differing choice.