A rare moment of levity in “Dark Red Forest” arrives just after Tibetan New Year when a nun sees an elder at the Yarchen Monastery about the toothache and headache she’s experiencing. As it turns out, she decided to celebrate the New Year a little too heavily by having some meat, disagreeing with her system after subsisting largely on bread and water for months and discovered when some floating matter surfaces in her urine – volunteering it to be stirred and boiled in order to find a diagnosis. She knows she broke the rules, flashing a mischievous smile when admitting to eating the meat, so there is no need for further admonishment – besides that itself would run afoul of Buddhist philosophy – but the impulse to eat the meat becomes a central tension in Jin Huaqing’s fascinating peek inside the sacred practice of Retreat, occurring over the coldest hundred days of the year in Yarchen Gar, located in a remote valley in the western Sichuan Province of China.
Some nuns get too sick to take part, but a great deal of the 10,000 of them in the region brave the bitter cold in tents set up outside the monastery in order to clear their head of distraction, led to believe by their guru that suffering is merely a state of mind in order to be compassionate towards others. There is no doubting this idea amongst the nuns, but there is also no one who appears to have achieved such freedom, ironically pained by living in fear of being human in pursuit of transcendence. As Huaqing notes in a rare bit of exposition in the verite film, most nuns are indoctrinated early in life and “only find glorification upon death,” making the gurus’ insistence that they do what they must to free themselves of distraction their only guidance when they know no other way to live, but “Dark Red Forest” implicitly questions such devotion when it’s so extreme, with the moments they’re made to thinking they’re in the wrong to let their minds stray appearing as the ones where they are truly living.
While the nuns grapple with giving over such deep concentration to their meditation, “Dark Red Forest” poses no such issue to an audience with the film ably capturing the breathtaking scenery and a way of life that is bound to inspire curiosity to anyone outside of it. Beyond the more unusual focus on nuns as opposed to monks, the film offers scenes of the engrossing inner workings of the monastery, giving a sense of the strong communal spirit of activities such as noodle-pulling by hand and addressing medical needs with organic remedies while suggesting how lonely each individual’s search for enlightenment is. For most, “Dark Red Forest” may take place a world away, yet the experience of holding onto one’s personal identity while being part of a larger group is likely to close the gap, with the women of Yarchen rendered anonymous yet leaving a strong impression nonetheless.