Published January 1, 2000
If you are a Buddhist or very fond of soccer—or possibly one of the yuppie aristocracy who are both—then The Cup is for you. Even I, who have very little time for either Buddhism or soccer, found it completely charming. Written and directed by Khyentse Norbu, it tells the story of a Buddhist monastery in Bhutan or northeastern India (it is not quite made clear which) which is full of exiled Tibetans, come there to practice their religion as they cannot do under Chinese rule in their own country. This alone gives their religious vocation a depth and an urgency that its counterparts too seldom have in the too-comfortable West. Yet merely being on the front line of the ideological struggle does not preclude boredom or a longing for more secular amusements among the monks—particularly as many of them are also much younger than they would be in the West.
What I especially liked about the film was that neither the kids, led by the charmingly mischievous and soccer-mad fourteen year-old, Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), nor their religious masters and instructors, especially the old Abbot (Lama Chonjor) and his right-hand man and adminstrator, Geko (Orgyen Tobgyal)—both of which actors are in real life Buddhist adepts, monks and teachers—come off badly or unsympathetically. Both the monastery’s imperfect discipline and its effects on those who are also imperfect but also disciplined make perfect sense to us. This is especially true in the scenes in which the Abbot and Geko confer about how to deal with their young charges.
When Geko tells the Abbot that group of pupils led by Orgyen have been caught sneaking out after lights out to go watch a World Cup match down in the village, where the shopkeeper has a TV, the Abbot says: “Do they know you’ve told me? Don’t tell them [you have]
or we’ll never discipline them.” Geko has to explain why it is so difficult to discipline them just now, with the World Cup on. “What’s that?” asks the Abbot.
“Two civilized nations fighting over a ball,” Geko tells him.
“You’re kidding,” replies the Abbot. “So there’s violence?”
“Don’t worry, no sex.”
Finally, the Abbot asks Geko, “How do you know so much about it?” and Geko smiles weakly in embarrassment. The Abbot agrees to let the boys watch the climactic match between France and Brazil in the monastery, instead of taking their picnic day.
The point is made in all kinds of ways that both teachers and pupils are threatened from two sides. On the one side is the colossus of China and its machinery of oppression in their homeland, that which has driven them to this place. On the other side is the junky popular culture of the West which just laps round the edges of their mountain haven. It is symbolized for us by the Coca-cola can which, in the opening scene, the young monks are using as a soccer ball, as well as the satellite dish which they are allowed to rent, along with the TV, from the Indian shopkeeper. Both are powerful enough to represent a threat to the traditional way of life in the monastery, and both require the monks to arrive at some kind of accommodation with them that can be seen as representative of the accommodations that religion is always having to make with power and the secular world.
But ultimately, I think, the charm of this film comes from a sort of cultural nostalgia or race memory of a time when, even in America, schools were mainly concerned with learning rather than sports, dating and the bolstering of self-esteem, when teachers were knowledgeable, wise and much-respected and pupils (accordingly) respectful and desirous of learning. Was there ever such a time here? There are those who say there was. At any rate, this film makes it possible for us to believe it possible that once, even here, a teenager would expect to be under the more-or-less continual disciplinary authority of some adult or other and that, accordingly, his most egregious fault might be that he would, once or twice in four years, sneak out at night to watch a football game. To get the pleasure of this wonderful dream of an innocence long since lost, you don’t have to like soccer or Buddhism.