Pema Tseden, Tibet New Wave Film Director, Dies at 53

Pema Tseden, the Tibetan art house film director known for “Jinpa” and “Balloon,” has died. He was 53.

It is understood that he was in Tibet when he died suddenly of an unspecified illness. Some unconfirmed Chinese-language media said that he had a heart attack.

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The news was reported by the China Academy of Art, where he taught as a professor.

“Pema Tseden, a famous Tibetan director, screenwriter and professor at the Film School of the China Academy of Art, died in Tibet in the early hours of May 8 due to an acute illness. Due to the sudden incident, the school will work with Mr Tseden’s family to deal with the follow up matters. The relevant information will be announced in due course,” the Academy said in a statement.

Pema Tseden statement from China Academy of Art
Pema Tseden statement from China Academy of Art

Pema Tseden, who also used the Chinese name Wanmaciadan, was ethnically Tibetan and choose to work within the official Chinese film system of script approvals, censorship and release permits. He was the first Tibetan student to graduate from the prestigious Beijing Film School.

A former civil servant and teacher, Pema Tseden is sometimes described as a pioneer of the Tibetan New Wave and has credits that include “Silent Holy Stones,” The Sun Beaten Path” and “Tharlo.” His last three completed features were all invited to play at the Venice festival.

He completed lensing in July last year on “Snow Leopard,” a drama film understood to concern a conflict between a father and a son after a snow leopard kills nine of a herder’s goats. The son wants to kill the leopard, but the father insists on letting the animal go unharmed.

The human cast include Jinpa, Xiong Ziqi and Tseten Tashi. Cinematography is by Belgium DoP Matthias Delvaux (“The Cloud in Her Room,” “Journey to the West”).

Produced by Zhang Jian, Zhou Hao and Wang Lei, “Snow Leopard” is presented by Great Luck Films, Lead Culture Media, Dzona Pictures and Mani Stone Pictures. “We are working on the post-production. We plan to finish everything by October, and then start submitting the film to the festivals,” his team told Variety by email last year. The film’s status is not known.

The director had also received government approval to shoot another film known variously as “Stranger” and “Have a Nice Trip” about a man riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle round Tibet looking for a woman.

“Such terrible, terrible, terribly sad news of your passing, Pema Tseden, one of the most distinctive voices of contemporary cinema. I wish this wasn’t true,” wrote Kiki Fung, programmer at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, on Facebook.

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