It satisfies the natural curiosity to explore and experience a far distant culture and tells a humane story in a novel and surprising way.
White Sun presents a slice of life in postwar Nepal. It carefully balances between being ethnographic and being cinematic, ensuring that, even while showing how highland villagers live, it remains character- and plot-driven. The film is successful at this delicate shifting of purposes. White Sun, in the end, speaks about the peace process, the inevitable clash between tradition and change and the vagaries of rural life.
White Sun opens with a death. The village chief has died suddenly in his sleep, presenting a severe problem for the rest of the village. In traditional Nepali villages, the dead cannot pass through a doorway, lest they curse the house. Exacerbating the issue further, war-ravaged, impoverished Nepal has seen its highland villages evacuated by men seeking better lives either in Kathmandu or abroad. There is only one able-bodied man left in the village, Suraj (Rabindra Singh Baniya), the chief’s own son, and he cannot carry the corpse through the second-story window and to the floor on his own.
Fortunately, Durga (Asha Maya Magrati), the chief’s nominal daughter-in-law, has summoned her estranged husband, Chandra (Dayahang Rai), who is Suraj’s brother. He arrives and the two men manage to get their father into the village green for the requisite funeral rituals. But while Chandra’s arrival solves one crisis, it ignites an even larger one. Chandra, like Suraj, is a war veteran, but while Suraj (and the rest of the village) were supporters of the monarchy and its traditionalist values during the civil war, Chandra was instead a guerrilla fighter in the Maoist insurrection. Chandra spent decades fighting to usurp traditional ways of organizing society, such as caste hierarchies and religious values, in order to make Nepal more democratic and open to economic modernization. His return from Kathmandu—where he performs an unspecified but minor role in the peace negotiations—creates instant tensions in the village.
The conflict between Chandra and his native village have disastrous consequences for his father’s funeral. Chandra and Suraj come to blows while moving their father’s body down the hill to the river, the ritually-sanctified place for funeral pyres. The body is abandoned on the hillside path while Suraj returns to the village and Chandra goes in search of another man somewhere who can help carry his father’s corpse. From here, White Sun features a very humorous and unexpected wake, an odd and rather passionless love triangle and plenty of adorable children.
In fact, White Sun has a parallel plotline involving the village’s children. They represent Nepal’s future, and, ultimately, the way the kids negotiate between progress and tradition shows the way forward. The adults remain mired in their old grievances and years of bickering, but the children understand the stakes in a wholly different way and use their fluency with both old and new to forge a workable response. The film ends on a high note.
The film very deliberately takes the viewer on a cultural tour of the Himalayan foothills while telling its story. It shows multiple household rituals—preparing meals, watering crops and packing for a move—a wedding, a police station more interested in bartering the price of a chicken than in keeping the peace, a restaurant with a sleepy proprietor, a medical clinic and plenty of religious rituals. There are also breakaway dissident Maoists who have not agreed to the ceasefire, a botched shootout and multiple helicopter landings that signal the state’s presence in the highlands. In most exterior shots, way back in the far distant background, the formidable snow-capped Himalayan crest rises ever higher. Most memorable is perhaps the local means of transportation: impossibly steep, stone-lined paths up and around the mountains and zipline-like rope bridges crossing ravines. These ethnographic elements are quite organically mixed in to the narrative of White Sun so that they never feel superfluous or too forced.
White Sun is both fun and funny. It satisfies the natural curiosity to explore and experience a far distant culture and tells a humane story in a novel and surprising way. Most importantly, it plausibly stages a drama centered on the challenges of building peace in a land torn apart by a generation of war. Nepal has a lost generation, a still-unresolved duel between tradition and modernity and innumerable problems caused by climate change and the 2015 earthquake. The idea of attaining peace in such a society seems too daunting to even contemplate, yet Nepal works inexorably towards reconciliation and rebuilding. White Sun is a lens through which to understand all of this better.