When that old dharma bum Steven Seagal was declared the reincarnation of a distinguished 17th-century lama, I remember thinking to myself, "Tibetan Buddhism is so five minutes ago." But Khyentse Norbu's The Cup suggests that, on the contrary, this ancient religion is ready to make its peace with modern technology, globalism, even the Coca-Cola Company, one of whose cans gets turned into a candle-holder by an elderly monk who lives at a monastery located in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the movie is set. If that reminds you of the scene in 1980's The Gods Must Be Crazy where a Coke bottle falls from the sky and lands near a Kalahari Bushman, it's probably supposed to. The difference is that The Gods Must Be Crazy, which was directed by a white South African, couldn't help but identify with the Coke bottle as much as with the Kalahari Bushman, whereas The Cup's Norbu is himself an incarnate lama. He also appears to be a natural-born filmmaker, though he didn't see his first film until he was 19. The Cup is shot in a simple yet subtly poetic style, about what you'd expect from someone who's worked very hard to be of, but not quite in, the world. (According to what I've read, Norbu used mo--an ancient Tibetan Buddhist system of divination--to decide everything from who would play which roles to where to put the camera.) But the movie's also infused with a Renoir-esque humanism, which manifests itself as a passionate love for soccer. Led by a feisty youngster named Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), The Cup's monks-in-training do all the usual boys-will-be-boys things: play practical jokes on one another, nod off during meditation, cuss on occasion. But the truly subversive activity they engage in is sneaking off late at night to watch the World Cup on television--nirvana via satellite.
They're soon caught, but the monastery's abbot, a wistful man who's remained packed for the return trip to Tibet ever since he left the country decades ago, hasn't heard of the World Cup. "It's two civilized nations fighting over a ball," he's told, and somehow that's enough to convince him that the young monks should be allowed to rent a TV and satellite dish and watch the finals at home. "Inspired" by a true story, The Cup wants to show us that your average Tibetan Buddhist monk isn't the ethereal smiley-face that floats through such movies as Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun--that he has a personality, even an ego. It's only the West's lingering longing for Shangri-La that causes us to think otherwise. Some will see the movie as a sacrilege, I suppose. I see it as a gentle testament to the fact that, 40 years after being kicked out of the land that time forgot, the Tibetan Buddhists have started to move on.