A nun sounds a femur-bone trumpet next to a wake of vultures descending upon a fresh corpse laid out in the snow. The haunting image, part of a Tibetan sky burial at Yarchen Gar Monastery in China’s Sichuan Province, is not easily unseen. Witnessing the funeral ceremony firsthand is what compelled the independent Chinese filmmaker Jin Huaqing to document the residents of Yarchen Gar. More than six years of filming later, flashes from the burial ritual now appear as a refrain in Dark Red Forest, which follows some 7,000 Tibetan Buddhist nuns who shelter inside makeshift wooden huts for a 100-day retreat that takes place during the coldest part of the year.
The director manages to create a cohesive story line despite forgoing a single protagonist. Instead, he tells the story of thousands of figures, most of them masked and indistinguishable from one another. It may be disorienting at first, but what emerges is an introspective exploration of the relationships between these women. Our admiration for them deepens with each passing scene, as we watch them prostrating themselves around a frozen lake, moving insects along their path to safety, or sitting still in meditation for hours outdoors, unfazed by the snowstorm enveloping them. The physicality of their devotion is overwhelming, and it is easy to see how their martial-like commitment to cultivating compassion drew Huaqing toward them for years after his initial visit.
While impermanence is a prominent theme in the film, it’s not all doom and gloom in the dark red forest—the sea of burgundy robes that inspired the documentary’s title. Scenes of yaks poking their heads through windows and a nun confessing to having caved into her carnal desires (indulging in yak meat on Losar, the Tibetan New Year) provide moments of levity that help to buoy viewers among the otherwise grueling realities of monastic life at 13,000 feet. Seemingly banal footage of elder nuns kneading noodles in the kitchen and a patient seeking relief from the Tibetan doctor for a toothache gives a more balanced emotional tenor to the film, centered largely around the first noble truth, the truth of suffering. After all, with the rigors of living in subzero temperatures and having minimal insulation inside their simple shelters, it is an undeniably harsh existence for the Yarchen nuns.
But these devotees consider such experiences of pain to be mainly mind-made. “There is no real suffering in the world,” one nun reminds us in the opening scene. “People only suffer because of their obsessions.” When another retreatant asks her teacher where greed, hatred, and ignorance—and, as a result, suffering—come from, the lama advises her to adopt a don’t-know mind and begin again. “Restart your path to enlightenment,” he tells her. “Work on your heart like herders work on yak leather.” Such pith instructions—from male teachers as well as female faith healers and young nuns—bring real dharmic weight to the film from the outset.
Over an hour into the film, we begin to see Chinese propaganda slogans promoting ethnic unity. One banner announces a national promise to “write a new chapter of harmonious development.” Soon after, we watch as nuns work together to disassemble their cabins. They leave the monastery hauling pieces of home on their backs, though it’s not exactly clear why. The circumstances of their departure become more obvious when practitioners exchange words with the resident lama. One fears she won’t remember her way back to her village because she’s been gone too long. “I really want to help you stay, but there’s nothing I can do,” says the lama, who feels powerless, presumably against the Chinese government’s tightening restrictions and forced evictions.
He tells her, “Work on your heart like herders work on yak leather.”
The allusion to political realities is yet another way in which Dark Red Forest brings to bear sobering lessons about the inevitability of change. Since 2017, Chinese officials have reportedly demolished the homes of several thousand Yarchen residents, forcing them to relocate, and now maintain hundreds of surveillance stations around the complex. In one of the final vignettes, a displaced nun shares a reflection with the camera, which she has gradually come to feel is less intrusive. “Here in this freezing valley, birds are not only hungry but also live in fear every day of being attacked by hawks,” she says in front of a meditation hut that she has rebuilt.
The film ends where it began, with birds of prey dancing in the clouds and the blowing of a conch shell suffusing the open sky. Read as an omen, the final ballad gestures to tensions playing out in many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries under Chinese governance today. If the fate of similar institutions is any indication, Yarchen’s future and way of life are at risk of disappearing. As the sun rises in the closing scene, we drift into the dawn of not-knowing, holding on to hope that the Yarchen nuns may one day be able to find their way back home.