Originally published Thursday, December 29, 2011 at 5:40 PM

Movie review

'Summer Pasture': a true look at slow-to-change nomadic lifestyle

Engrossing documentary about a nomadic family of three in Eastern Tibet.

Special to The Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Summer Pasture,' directed by Lynn True, Tsering Perlo and Nelson Walker. 86 minutes. In Tibetan, with English subtitles. No rating; includes brief nudity. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

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For more than 4,000 years, the grasslands in Eastern Tibet have been inhabited by nomads.

Lately, attracted to a less rural, more literate life, they've been moving to towns and cities. But as Locho, the central character in an engrossing new documentary, "Summer Pasture," demonstrates, some generational matters never change.

"I had wanted to go to school," he says, "but grandmother didn't agree. She said school was useless. Kids who move to town don't learn reading and writing. They only learn bad things."

Locho and his hardworking wife, Yama, spend most of their time providing the essentials for themselves and their infant daughter.

For fuel to keep the fire going, the ever-smiling Yama collects yak dung, spreads it and dries it. She worries that there won't be enough to keep away the cold, but she always seems to have a pot boiling.

"I never feel like I have nothing to do," she says. "You work the whole day and don't see much result." Still, the family loves their interaction with the beasts who provide yak butter and constant companionship.

"Nothing is better than animals," Locho says. He dreams of them and cheerfully depends on them. Perhaps Yama, who once flirted with the idea of becoming a Buddhist nun, uses them to distract her when her husband strays to a tent with another woman.

The affair may be fleeting, but it leaves its mark on a marriage that's already limited by Chinese laws forbidding large families. (The film was shot in 2007 in a Tibetan region that's part of Sichuan province.) The couple hope that next year they'll prosper, and indeed a postscript informs us that they had another child.

The directors, Lynn True, Tsering Perlo and Nelson Walker, mix timeless images (magic-hour sunsets, chilly sunrises, vigorous yak-milking, a punishing hailstorm) with modern touches (a search for a specific piece of blue plastic demonstrates the family's pragmatic nature).

The filmmakers may not explain everything that passes before their cameras (why is caterpillar fungus such a hot commodity?), but that's part of the intrigue in this vanishing way of life.

John Hartl:

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