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(The 2018 SXSW Film Festival kicked off March 9 and runs all the way through to March 17. Hammer to Nail has a slew of reviews and interviews coming in hot and heavy so keep your dial tuned to HtN!)

In the documentary  A Little Wisdom, boys play in fields, chase each other, climb trees, their cries and laughter ringing through the tall grasses and high branches, filled with joyful exuberance, happy in an apparent idyll of tranquil childhood. Though they are like any other boys their age, they are simultaneously something quite different: monks-in-training, deposited at one of 40 monasteries in Lumbini, Nepal (birthplace of the Buddha), near the Indian border. The youngest among them is 5-year-old Hopakuli, with the oldest ranging somewhere around 11 or 12. Some are orphans, while others have been left by families who can no longer care for them. Here, they follow lessons in Tibetan Buddhism and learn their place in the world. It is by no means a terrible life, but that doesn’t stop many from missing their mothers.

Director Yuqi Kang, making her feature-documentary debut, presents the story in a purely observational style, without commentary or interviews, allowing the narratives of her three main protagonists – Hopakuli, his older brother Chorten, and eldest boy Vija – to emerge through careful shot choice and editing. Beautifully photographed – partly by Kang, herself – the movie’s gentle pacing is almost hypnotic, at times, lulling us into a trance not unlike that achieved through Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Once in that state, we work our way through the enchanting mix of arresting visuals and accompanying sounds to discover meaning within the ordinary, daily actions of the on-screen characters. Slowly, we reach a sort of transcendence, discerning “a little wisdom” in the most mundane of actions.

This being the 21st century, these tiny monks are as much creatures of the modern world as are we. Hopakuli, himself, is obsessed with superheroes and monsters, both achieving a primary place in his games and dreams, watching video clips on various internet-connected devices. Such technology makes an odd bedfellow with an almost primordial scene of Hopakuli walking down a deserted lane, gradually disappearing into thick morning mist, seemingly cut off from modernity. Indeed, it is Kang’s focus on this compelling paradox that lends the film an additional appeal. Past and present collide in an intriguing near-violent mix, irreconcilable yet somehow codependent.

And always, there are the boys, their relationships forming the dramatic backbone of the piece. Even though frequently affectionate, they can also be quite mean to each other, the camera (and nearby adults) often mere spectators in this savage micro-Lord of the Flies. Framed in careful compositions, they are nevertheless more than mere objets d’art. They grow and change over the course of the year we spend with them, slowly evolving into better, kinder people. They, too, gain “a little wisdom,” like us, and we are fortunate that Kang and crew are there to document the transformation. Thank the Buddha for the exquisite grandeur of these diminutive souls.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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