Kids these days are under a lot of pressure. There’s the pressure to excel in school, even at a young age. There’s the added responsibility of organized sports. There’s the fact that many kids are now growing up in broken homes. There’s the continuing pop-cultural lure of sex and drugs. And if 30 years’ worth of PSAs are to be believed, there’s an awful lot of peer pressure exerted on young people to smoke cigarettes. Imagine, then, that you’re a 3-year-old Nepalese tyke who’s just been fingered as the reincarnation of recently deceased 84-year-old Buddhist master Geshe Lama Konchog. No pressure or anything, kid, but pack up your stuff—you’ve got a 1,000-year mission of peace and enlightenment to get cracking on.
Unmistaken Child, the fascinating and occasionally puzzling new documentary by Israeli filmmaker Nati Baratz, takes the long way ’round to the above scenario by introducing us to a shy, soft-spoken monk by the name of Tenzin Zopa. Zopa is tasked by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama with hunting down, authenticating and returning with the reincarnation of Zopa’s beloved master Geshe Lama Konchog. Zopa doesn’t think this is the greatest idea in the world. He’s still blinded by grief over the recent death and rather unsure of his abilities to venture out into the wide world and find a human needle in a humanity haystack. But a dictate from the Dalai Lama is a bit like one from the Godfather—it’s an offer you can’t refuse. ... Oh, did I mention you’ve only got four years in which to do it? Good luck, there, Zopa!
Unmistaken Child plunges viewers deeply into the world of Buddhist spirituality. Baratz, who clearly has no pre-existing knowledge of this exotic world, sits quietly in the corner with his camera and lets the story unfold, verité-style. It’s an eye-opening experience, but not always an elucidative one. Personally, I don’t know all that much about Buddhism. Most of what I know seems to have come from the Eddie Murphy film The Golden Child—which does actually seem to be of some assistance here, but not much. It’s not exactly easy for outsiders to grasp the peculiar “rules” of this brand of Buddhism. Why is Zopa charged with locating Konchog’s reincarnation? Why does he only have four years in which to locate the reborn master? If the master has been reborn, why is he so unaware of his present situation? If he retains no memory of his previous lives, what’s the point? And in a world of six billion people, why do these Buddhist masters always end up reincarnating in a village a few miles away? OK, so maybe such questions expose a certain “unholiness” in me. But if you’re gonna make a documentary, shouldn’t you be addressing those kinds of questions?
Enlightenment (both spiritual and intellectual) aside, Unmistaken Child is a frequently thrilling travelogue. Zopa rather hesitantly embarks on his quest by horse, helicopter and treacherous mountain footpath. Along the way, there are revelatory dreams, visions, assorted helpful omens and some nebulous advice given by astrologers. (Helpful hint No. 1: There’s a 95 percent certainty that the boy’s father’s name begins with an “A.”) Eventually, Zopa locates a seemingly average-looking kid in a nondescript Nepalese village and figures his quest is at an end. (The kid’s kind of got long ears, Lama Konchog had long ears. Close enough!) All Zopa’s got to do is prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this child is a recently deceased 84-year-old Buddhist monk. That’s not such an easy task when The Chosen One doesn’t want to wear robes or get his head shaved and would rather play with his toys than chant sutras all day.
There’s a compelling dramatic arc here, and it’s helped along by some breathtaking cinematography and a notably doleful score. There are moments scattered throughout that really stick the emotional landing—as when the parents of the once-and-future lama struggle with essentially giving up their child because it will theoretically “benefit all sentient beings.” Sounds great on paper, but the faces of the parents hint at their real inner struggle.
A more rational mind might have dug a little deeper, questioning the monkly certainty with which children are regularly taken from their parents and enshrined in mountaintop monasteries. But Baratz is more interested in poetic exoticism, an outsider-looking-in view that says, I don’t get it, but I find myself deeply in awe of this Asian mysticism stuff anyway. At its best, though, Unmistaken Child will intrigue you and make you want to explore more of Guatama Buddha’s centuries-old religion.