*. Shakespeare travels well. Othello has been relocated to the Wild West (Jubal) and The Tempest set in outer space (Forbidden Planet), so why not play Hamlet in Tibet?
*. If nothing else, you know you’re going to get some nice scenery. And indeed the scenery and the native costumes are the main attraction here. The elaborate headwear alone is worth the price of admission. At least, if you’re into that kind of thing.
*. As for the Shakespeare, it’s middling. The basic plot and characters are all in place. Prince Lhamoklodan returns home to find his father dead and his uncle, who is now king, married to his mother. He reignites a romantic relationship with Odsaluyang (Ophelia), hangs out with his friend Horshu (Horatio), is visited by the ghost of his murdered father, vows revenge, and ends up killing Odsaluyang’s father Po-lha-nyisse (Polonius). Odsaluyang’s brother Lessar (Laertes) comes back and there’s a duel and everyone’s dead at the end.
*. A lot of the dialogue is recognizable too, at least as it is rendered in subtitles (apparently it was done in Tibetan, which means that almost everyone who sees it will be reading subtitles). There’s a terrific moment in the scene where Lhamoklodan (Hamlet) asks his mother to compare the pictures of his father and his uncle. In Shakespeare, Hamlet describes his father as having “Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself, an eye like Mars, to threaten and command, a station like the herald Mercury New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill.” In the movie he’s said to look “like a heroic yak.”
*. Other differences are intriguing. In the first place, the Gertrude and Claudius characters here were lovers before Gertrude married Hamlet Sr., and the old king was a right bastard. When he found out that she’d been fooling around with his brother he became abusive and inflicted upon her “the cruelest punishment.” I’m not sure what this amounted to but it seems to have involved some kind of sexual violence. Complicating matters more, Hamlet is actually Gertrude and Claudius’s love child, conceived before she married Hamlet Sr. When he found out about that he planned on killing them both, but Claudius got him first by way of a poisoned lap-dog.
*. All of this has the effect of making Claudius (his name here is Kulo-gnam) a far more sympathetic figure, while the ghost of Hamlet Sr. is an evil spirit just looking for revenge.
*. The other big change is that Lhamoklodan and Odsaluyang fully consummate their love and she is pregnant when she kills herself. Indeed, she gives birth in the river she drowns in, with her baby being rescued by a witchy wolf-woman who looks like one of the Weird Sisters dropped in from Macbeth.
*. I suppose purists might take exception to all this, but I found these new twists on the old tale to be fascinating. They turn it into a new story, but at the same time they also make you think of the old story in a new light. What if the ghost really was just a bitter shit? What if Claudius wasn’t such a bad guy?
*. Of course, the changes mean that the ending becomes something very different. Hamlet now has a death wish and a Laertes to kill him, while Claudius is actually trying to kill Laertes to save Hamlet. Nobody is thinking straight, but the upshot is that there’s a final message that is all about forgiveness and reconciliation and not revenge. A new hope arises as the wolf woman brings out the baby, which also means there’s no need of the Fortinbras character (an Amazon queen here) to be reintroduced.
*. In sum, this is a movie that I think anyone interested in adaptations of Shakespeare will want to hunt down. It is not a great movie. Director Sherwood Hu strikes me as being a little too fond of the historical costume-drama stuff. He doesn’t do action sequences well, and tries too hard to cover up for the fact. Nor does the score help much at such moments (the music accompanying the fight over Ophelia’s body as it lies on its spirit boat at the shore of the lake seemed particularly inappropriate, at least to my ear). Some of the editing struck me as bizarre, as though much more had been shot and big chunks had then been taken out.
*. Still, it’s Hamlet. In Tibet! And it works and it’s new.