TIFF 2023 | Snow Leopard (Pema Tseden, China) — Centrepiece

By Gabrielle Marceau

In Pema Tseden’s latest film (and perhaps his last: he passed away this May during post-production), a snow leopard in the Tibetan countryside is held captive in a sheep’s pen after killing nine rams. We see its story from a number of angles: inflexible bureaucrats imposing a nationalist agenda; an incensed herder (Jinpa) looking for justice for his butchered flock; a local news crew hoping to capture an amusing story; and the animal’s own narrative, which we access through visions of a young monk (Tseten Tashi). Pema Tseden balances these intersecting perspectives playfully and, to his credit, with little care for subtlety (there is a scene in which the local police, herders, bureaucrats, and the TV crew fight, slapstick-style, in the dirt). While his portrait of contemporary Tibetan life is grounded in naturalistic details, it is also structured tightly towards illustrating the clash of modernity and tradition. 

This is not a new topic for Pema Tseden, who spent his career making films about Tibetan identity and rural life amidst China’s increasing modernization efforts (and within the ideologically strict Chinese film system). The trapped snow leopard becomes a vessel for these clashing cultures: the government wants to protect the endangered species, the herder wants to kill it, and the camera crew wants to capture some viral footage. Snow leopards are famously elusive, difficult to capture on film, solitary and, due to poaching and environmental destruction, increasingly rare. But Snow Leopard gives us unfettered access to the animal (or at least, a teddy-bear-like CGI version) through expressive black-and-white sequences of the monk bonding with it in the mountains, nuzzling and making meaningful eye contact. While Pema Tseden makes a clear case for the animal’s autonomy and self-reliance—and by extension, the right of Tibetan herders to live their lives unperturbed—his snow leopard’s noble unknowability is undercut by its being so…well…cute