Tenzin Review | A Look Inward That’s Better Looking Outward

by Andrew Parker

Heavy on atmosphere and tragedy, but disappointingly light on depth, the Canadian produced, Tibetan diaspora set drama Tenzin is basic and reductive, but not lacking in food for thought. Although it’s not a long movie, Tenzin is one of those productions that might’ve worked better as a short instead. In a shorter form, the film’s distinct lack of characterization would be much easier to overlook. Around the periphery of writer-directors Michael LeBlanc and Joshua Reichmann’s collaboration are interesting existential and ethical questions that are more interesting than the substance of the film itself.

Tenzin is a Tibetan, gender neutral name that roughly translates to “holder (or upholder) of teachings.” It’s also the name of LeBlanc and Reichmann’s protagonist – played by Tenzin Kelsang – a flatbed tow truck operator living in Toronto with his father. Tenzin has been having a difficult time coming to terms with the death of his brother, Sangye, who killed himself via an act of self-immolation while protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Clearly distraught, Tenzin finds himself in the grip of vivid, frightening dreams and withdrawing further away from his family and community. Everyone sees Sangye’s sacrifice as brave and selfless, but Tenzin isn’t so sure, leading to a crisis of his Buddhist faith and self.

The big picture questions at the heart of Tenzin are the most fascinating and resonant aspects offered up by LeBlanc (a cinematographer and music video veteran) and Reichmann (a musician and first time feature director). What is the nature of freedom? Is it being able to put one’s body and life on the line for a cause or is it living in spite of oppression and restriction? To that end, what comprises someone’s inner strength? What does it mean to live in the shadow of a martyr? What does it mean when a person sees themself as a disappointment, while others see them as a disappointment for completely different reasons? These are tough topics to wrestle with, and while Kelsang does a terrific job of acting out these emotions, LeBlanc and Reichmann’s vibes over substance approach – which always come across as more eerie than downtrodden, reflective, or sorrowful – lets down the film as a whole.

It’s not surprising that LeBlanc and Reichmann have musical backgrounds, as a lot of Tenzin has been structured like anecdotes along a timeline, with several psychological asides peppered throughout. Tenzin is an elegantly composed film on a visual level (particularly a scene where Kelsang wanders through a Tibetan rally in a park unnoticed, as if he were a ghost), and the performances are great, but the script and its implementation are severely lacking. The characters in Tenzin are defined solely by their community and their pain, but never as individuals, meaning everyone comes across as a two-dimensional cipher standing in for a larger issue and not as human beings. 

The crux of the personal relationships in Tenzin and the connective tissue of this community are never fully explained beyond some of them being family and all of them being Tibetan. Nothing is known of the events that came before and informed this point. They have no inner lives beyond their suffering, trauma, and grief. Not only is that a fatalist sentiment that speaks down to such immigrant experiences rather than further informing them, but it results in a narrative that’s spinning its wheels and repeating the same points. A subplot involving the notoriously corrupt Toronto towing industry feels tacked on to add something akin to a contemporary narrative, and even then it proves to be an imperfect and rather niche metaphor for the main character’s troubles.

Tenzin is a movie where it’s much more fulfilling to think about what the film is trying to accomplish and talk about rather than what it actually achieves. The film itself is frustratingly limp and over-stylized, but that’s not to say that it isn’t capable of provoking the viewer to thought and reflection. By the time Tenzin reaches its simple, reductive, unsatisfying, and heavily telegraphed conclusion, it’s clear that LeBlanc and Reichmann have missed the mark, but not wasted the viewer’s time entirely.

Tenzin screens on March, 17 & 19, 2023 at Revue Cinema in Toronto (with filmmakers in attendance on the 17th), at VIFF Centre in Vancouver on March 18, 19, & 22, at the Plaza Theatre in Calgary on March 20, and ByTowne Cinema in Ottawa on March 28. It will also start streaming on CBC Gem starting March 20.

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