Venice 2023 review: Snow Leopard (Pema Tseden)

Snow Leopard is small in scale as a story and massive in scale when it comes to its breathtaking scenery, yet Pema Tseden manages to ground the film in human emotions.”

A tinge of sadness runs through your body as you watch the late Pema Tseden’s last film Snow Leopard, like his previous three films playing at the Venice festival. It has been only three months since the Tibetan director died of heart failure on May 8th, and if Snow Leopard does anything it is to prove that the world lost not just a talented director in a technical sense, but also a man able to get to the heart of the connection between humanity and the world around it. At its core a very small story about the difficult relationship between man and animal in the lofty heights of Pema Tseden’s native Qinghai province in the Himalaya range, the director uses it to highlight fragile cultural and class balances. Set in the region’s gorgeous landscapes, beautifully photographed by DoP Matthias Delvaux, Snow Leopard leaves some threads dangling but manages to impress with its humanity and some pretty convincing CGI.

Local news reporter Dradul (Genden Phuntsok) has received a hot tip for a story from an old classmate-turned-monk, locally known as the Snow Leopard Monk (Tseten Tashi). A snow leopard has managed to make its way into his family’s sheep pen during the night and killed nine rams. When Dradul and his crew arrive at the family’s remote farm he is greeted by the monk’s father (Losang Choepel) and his brother Jinpa (played by an actor of the same name). The two men couldn’t be more different. The old man wants to release the animal, citing the harmony of nature, whereas Jinpa wants to retaliate against the predator to compensate for his financial loss. His younger brother, a monk with a passion for photography, seems to share a bond with the leopard, able to communicate with it telepathically. The conflict is in a deadlock, as Jinpa doesn’t want to let the animal go, but seeing as the snow leopard is a protected animal killing it is impossible. As a number of local government officials trickle in, Jinpa’s frustration reaches a boiling point.

Pema Tseden sharply draws a number of fault lines that run through his high-altitude tale. The Tibetan ethnic minority struggling with the rigidity and condescension of Chinese authorities has been a recurring theme in Pema Tseden’s oeuvre, but Snow Leopard adds the rural-urban divide within the Tibetan minority itself as well as the friction between farming and nature preservation in precarious natural habitats. The film handles these themes with subtlety through small differences in the way the various characters act, speak, or even how and what they eat, often in scenes that seem to add little to the narrative but are no less important to what Pema Tseden tries to do. This results in a balanced film where the viewer can see where each character is coming from, and that right and wrong in this situation are fluid.

The Buddhist approach to our relationship with nature and the animal kingdom is less lucid, getting stuck in a mystical bond between the monk and the titular leopard. Just as it is hard to read the emotions of your own cat (and believe me, I’ve tried), it is hard to see the majestic animal as a full-fledged character, something that is needed to fully comprehend their relationship. It isn’t for lack of visual prowess, for sure. The leopard’s gorgeous CGI can rival any Hollywood production that tries to bring computer-animated creatures to life; it reminds us of one of cinema’s other big cats, Richard Parker from Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. For most of the scenes the unnamed leopard blends in well with the scenery, especially in wide shots. In part this is because of clever shot design, and in part because of Delvaux’ stunning cinematography, which also extends to the interior shots in the family’s small home. Snow Leopard is easily one of the better looking films of the year.

Pema Tseden’s swan song is a final reminder that the Tibetan director had his finger firmly on the pulse of the human condition. Snow Leopard is small in scale as a story and massive in scale when it comes to its breathtaking scenery, yet Pema Tseden manages to ground the film in human emotions. But he also reminds us of the insignificance of our differences when put against the forces of nature. The relationship between the monk and the leopard symbolizes our relationship to the world we inhabit, but perhaps it also symbolizes the relationship we have with each other, and that only respect for each other will let us live in harmony. It is a philosophy that these days is increasingly frowned upon in the West, but as we say our farewell to a gifted filmmaker far too soon, perhaps we can learn from him one last time.