Nepal seems to be having something of a moment on the big screen, with Hollywood blockbusters like Everest (2015) and Doctor Strange (2016) setting scenes in the Himalayan nation as a novel new arena for adventure and spiritual self-discovery. But that’s for tourists. Here’s the real deal. The debut feature from director Min Bahadur Bham won Best Film during Critics Week at last year’s Venice Film Festival and proves to be an accomplished meditation on its creator’s childhood growing up amidst the Maoist Insurgency, a conflict tat saw the country drawn into a bloody civil war between 1996 and 2006.
Set in 2001 during a temporary ceasefire between government forces and left-wing revolutionaries, Bham’s film takes place in Mugu in Nepal’s rocky north west and introduces us to Kiran (Sukraj Rokaya) and Prakash (Khadka Raj Nepali), two school friends from different castes. Kiran is an impoverished Untouchable, sneered at by his comparatively affluent pal’s family, whose sole pleasure in life is a pristine white hen named Kashmira, a gift from his student sister. When Kiran’s father sells Kashmira in a fit of pique, Kiran and Prakash hatch a plan to steal her, dying the fowl’s feathers black in the hope of confusing the issue. When she is duly snatched back by an elderly peddler, he sends the bird on as a gift to distant family. The boys set out to rescue her once more, this time getting caught up in renewed hostilities between troops and having to think fast to survive.
Granted, a child’s-eye view of war and the inevitable loss of innocence that brutalising business entails isn’t especially original territory for world cinema. The subject has been tackled in everything from Spirit Of The Beehive (1973) and Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) to Innocent Voices (2004) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The cause may change but the sudden incursion of death and destruction into pre-teen idylls always brings about the same (albeit invariably poignant) results. That said, Bham’s evident sympathy for his young protagonists rings out here and the ramshackle beauty of his homeland is exquisitely captured, winning the day.
Kiran’s barren hometown of stone-and-wood houses is nestled into the slopes of a mountainside. Yaks and mules kick up the chalky dust as they roam its winding streets. Snow-capped peaks tower in the distance. Tradition still holds sway but technology can’t be held off forever, its green shoots already evident in the arrival of a travelling picture show and the odd landline telephone. The boy’s dreams sketch in the rest of the picture: one, a slow-motion wander through a temple, reveals contemporary Nepal to be a cosmopolitan melting pot compromised of Buddhist monks, bored soldiers, Catholic friars, preaching imams and dissident intellectuals, all competing for the hearts and minds of its populace. Bham brings us here and finds colour and vitality among the hardship, revelling in the details of lives lived against the odds.
But just as Kiran and Prakash must dye Kashmira to conceal her from grasping hands, so they are later forced to smear their own faces with blood to play dead in the middle of a woodland firefight. In Bham’s war-torn Nepal, everything is impermanent and perennially at stake, even a child’s identity. A terrible thought.
Review by Joe Sommerlad
The Black Hen. Nepal/France/Germany/Switzerland 2015. Directed by Min Bahadur Bham. Starring Khadka Raj Nepali, Sukra Raj Rokaya...
Out in the UK on the 9th of December 16