Thoughts On: The Cup (Phörpa, 1999)
Though this film is about Tibet and is set in India, it is made by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, a Bhutanese director and so is our Bhutanese film of the series.
The Cup is a rather heart-warming film about young Tibetan monks living in the Himalayas who desperately want to watch the 1998 World Cup. Initially they sneak out of their monastery to watch the football (soccer) games, but eventually are caught. Undeterred, they still want to watch the final and so decide to form an agreement with their teachers; if they are allowed to rent a television and watch the Cup final, they’ll all study harder.
This is a light film, slowly paced with subtle characterisation, comedy and a subdued narrative arc. The Cup is then seemingly an enjoyable, yet inconsequential, movie. However, there is a little more to this narrative than a simple story about change concerning tradition and Buddhist methods.
The Tibetan monks of this story are based in a monastery in India. This implies that they are Tibetan diaspora, a term that defines communities of Tibetans that are spread outside of their homeland. The reason why there are considerable factions of Tibet’s population spread outside of its boarders pertains to its complex history, primarily concerning China and sovereignty. In such, there is an on-going debate that questions if Tibet should be a sovereign state, separated from the People’s Republic of China (which it is still considered to be apart of, though, autonomously so), and also if it was ever historically an independent region. Over time there has been uprisings against China, and a significant example of this are the uprisings of 1959. During this devastating period of rebellion, the 14th Dalai Lama and fractions of his government fled to India with many Tibetans following him. This is considered to be the first wave of mass Tibetan emigration. A second wave occurred when China opened its boarders to Tibetans in the 80s, and a third that is still considered on-going began in the mid 90s. The third wave of emigration, however, is not always characterised as such as there are many families that will temporarily (emigration is permanent) send their children outside of Tibet so that they can be given traditional educations.
We see this history in The Cup through a couple of the main characters: an uncle and his young nephew that have been sent to India for a traditional Buddhist education – the young nephew’s watch (which his mother gave him) symbolising that his stay isn’t permanent and that he waits for it to be over. There is further commentary on this long and complex history of Tibet, however, through the game of football. As is shown in the film, football represents a change in the perspective of young Tibetan monks; they know about their place in the international landscape thanks to technological evolution and are aware of the wider world whilst older monks don’t necessarily have this knowledge in respect to world cultures and events (The World Cup being an example of this).
There is then a tension throughout the film that can be considered an archetypal fear or problem in many cultures. This tension is centred on an idea that the broadening of the young monk’s horizons will dilute their traditional senses and cultural identity – which is represented by the young students’ lack of focus in their studies. What then makes this film quite profound is its commentary on such an idea through football. Whist our main character is the most distracted from his studies and the most fixated on football, he is the one who learns the most through organising his World Cup viewing party. In such, by the end of the film, he showcases traits of self-sacrifice and empathy that his teacher says indicate that he could, after all, be a good monk.
What is most intriguing about The Cup is probably its ending. In its conclusion, we are told 4 things. The first is that the head teacher, the abbot, fulfilled his dream and moved back to Tibet. This implies that the state of Tibet has gotten better over the previous decades and so has again become a genuine homeland for many emigrants and exiled citizens. The second thing we are told is that our main character still dreams of a Tibetan national football team. As a film that came out in 1999, this film pre-dates the formation of a national Tibetan team by only a year. In 2001, they played their first international game against Denmark – who persisted with the organised match despite threats from China, which warned that they would cut off all trade with them. This team and The Tibetan National Football Association are ran and fuelled by Tibetan exiles and are still trying to be recognised as a national team by FIFA and other organisations.
The third thing that we are told is that many monks await the next World Cup – that being the 2002 Cup. This implies that there is a continued development amongst young monks; one which can be interpreted to mirror the positive change showcased by this film. Finally, we are told that the Chinese are still serving rice in Tibet. This is a euphemism of sorts that comments on China’s hold over Tibet and the fact that they still refuse to recognise the country as a sovereign state and not just an autonomous member of the People’s Republic of China.
Knowing all of this context makes The Cup a much more complex movie, its subtext actually enriching its already present feel-good tone. So, with a positive outlook, The Cup is essentially about a form of change that doesn’t leave tradition and culture behind; it is about philsophy, religion, knowledge, personalities and individualism separating to a certain degree, but nonetheless supporting one another. And with this subtext, The Cup is also a hopeful statement for continued change and development of this kind.
To end, what are your thoughts? Have you seen this movie? Do you think there is more about a Tibetan history and context to be found in The Cup?
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