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Review: Tenzin

March 17, 2023

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Set in Toronto’s Tibetan community, Tenzin is a Canadian social issue drama that takes a moody, minimalistic approach to telling a story and exploring its themes.

Directed by Michael LeBlanc and Josh Reichmann, the film centres around Tenzin (Tenzin Kelsang), a young Tibetan man dealing with the grief of losing his older brother, who died in an act of self-immolation after lighting himself on fire to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

LeBlanc, who also served as cinematographer, makes some interesting stylistic choices, including a scene where Tenzin slowly wanders through a Tibetan independence rally with the protesters mostly kept out of focus in the background. The camera often lingers on certain images, at times keeping us at a distance through unbroken wide shots.

Through these mostly assured framing choices, Tenzin (which was shot in Etobicoke, Parkdale and Scarborough) is effective at setting a mood. The film also features several more cerebral interludes that meld elements of fantasy, including visions that Tenzin has of his deceased brother, giving the whole thing a sort of slippery, illusory feel. This is matched by the eery, pulsating musical score courtesy of composer Colin Stetson.

The film mainly serves as a portrait of a young man struggling to come to terms with his brother’s suicide, weaving in how others in the community see his brother as a hero for what he did, and how this impacts Tenzin’s own sense of identity as an immigrant and his relationship to the Buddhist faith. These are all interesting themes, but at only 73 minutes, Tenzin is somewhat light on character development, with the actual plot and protagonists often coming across as surprisingly thin.

The screenplay itself, which was co-written by LeBlanc and Reichmann in collaboration with members of their cast, feels underdeveloped, including a subplot about the main character’s job working in the sleazy underground towing industry that isn’t as fleshed out as it could have been. We often get the sense that the film perhaps would have been better conceived as a short, instead of one that is barely stretched to over an hour.

But what works about Tenzin are the thought-provoking themes about heroism and identity that are at the periphery of it, which are brought to the forefront in one of the film’s best scenes through a story told by a shopkeeper about the phurba, a knife-like religious object that is significant in Buddhism. Even at such a brief running time, the film can still feel like it is spinning its wheels a bit, but there are moments like this that do linger.

Tenzin opens in limited release on March 17th, including at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Game Theory Films.

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