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A Life of Spirituality Found in the Harshest Elements– “Dark Red Forest” Film Review

In a sea of red, rows of perched heads stand contrast to the soft fall of snow and dark, looming mountains. Quiet hums are heard while clear bags are used to shield rounded faces from the cold. These stoic faces remain calm amidst the backdrop of the purest elements.

A Tibetian nun at Yarchen Monastery sheilding herself from the snow.

Directed by Huaqing Jin, Dark Red Forest is a visually compelling portrait of the 2,000 Buddhist nuns who have chosen a life of seclusion during their annual retreat in the harsh environments of Tibet’s remote Yarchen Monastery. The soft and naturally flowing pacing of the film delicately follows the nuns through the winter season as audiences watch the day-to-day tasks of the nuns: depicting a simple and almost childlike sense of living. This sense of cinéma vérité filmmaking allows audiences an intimate view into the spiritual inquiry and religious exploration of the women followed in the film. 

Beginning with a more elemental depiction of the lives, the audience watches religious gatherings, group meals, meditation practices, and visits to the Tibetan lama. As the film progresses, we witness the more profound effects of life, death, suffering, and healing during the 100 coldest days of the year during the retreat. The camera shifts from each of the nuns to tightly weave together a portrait of the community. There is not one single protagonist but rather a collection of related, but separate individuals. Despite the uniformity of the identical red robes and shaved heads, small displays of individuality are shown. For example, each nun has their own socks. It is shown that the nun’s primary desire in the monastery is to guide the rest of the world from afar. Despite potential government censorship of the film that would limit discussion of Chinese impact on Tibetan policy, director Jin does make small gestures to the recent Chinese government religious pressure pushing nuns to practice in this secluded world. The film also shows propaganda posters that urge “national unity” between ethnic groups. Despite these subtle political references, most of the film focuses on the rituals of the monastery during the winter months rather than the factors that push them to practice in the remote location. 

Dark Red Forest film poster, 2021.

This creatively untouched depiction of the lives of nuns in the film has not come without a critique of the context of politics and social conditions faced by the Tibetan Buddhists under the People’s Republic of China. Critics of this film have claimed that Dark Red Forest romanticized the realities of living under the totalitarian regime of China. In a “Modern Times” article about the film, author Zbynek Mucha questions who the film was made for– Chinese or Western audiences– and whether it is a naive display of Tibetan spiritual purity or rather a critique of the Chinese regime. Mucha questions how it is possible to shoot a spiritual film, as Jin claims as his intention, while living in a more politically repressed nation that has historically persecuted religious institutions (moderntimesreview). 

However, I view this primarily artistic and cinematic style of the film as allowing one’s own interpretation of the presented images. While the beauty captured on screen does allude to a facade of the lives of the nuns outside of this seemingly secluded world, the filmmaker Jin chooses to create a more visually grasping portrayal of the life of the Nuns, the conditions they face, and their community rather than a political depiction of the religious oppression. I view this choice as an angle of the documentary, rather than ignorance of the political undertones. The subtle inclusion of government censorship over the nun’s lives is portrayed in a simple way that allows viewers to put together the pieces themselves and read between the lines that the film provides. In an interview with director Jin, he said that it took over four years to build a relationship with the community that would embed him and his film crew into the nuns’ lives invisibly. He said that the government was mostly encouraging of this project but it was rather the monastery that took time to gain their trust.

The nuns of the Yarchen Monastery stand in unity during their practices.

Dark Red Forest shines a light on the daily practices and challenges against the natural world that the nuns of Yarchen Monastery face while provoking a sense of understanding for their practices and lifelong dedication to spirituality during the 100-day retreat.