HotDocs13: The Only Son (2013)

Family pressure is almost impossible to escape. If you’re fortunate enough to have a family you will experience the pressure of complying with your parents' desires for you. Pema, a young Himalayan man living in the Netherlands with a foster mother, understands this pressure all too well.

In The Only Son, Pema faces the question of whether or not he should submit to his mother’s wishes for him to return to their remote mountain village, to marry a girl of their choosing, and to take over care of the family farm. The problem is, Pema is enamoured with the western world. He wants to be a photographer and hates the idea of arranged marriage. The tension in the film is between his tremendous guilt over his desire to abandon his family traditions and his feelings of injustice over having the entire burden of these traditions placed on his and his sisters’ shoulders.

The Only Son by Simonka de Jong follows Pema as he returns to his village with his sisters and struggles to make a choice regarding his future. The film gives us access to the intriguing world of a remote Himalayan village, accessible only by two plane rides and a 10-day hike through winding valleys and towering mountains. But it also suffers from feeling bloated due to its lack of focus. It is as if de Jong had too much footage and didn’t know what to cut. It only runs 78 minutes, but feels two hours long. The travelogue journey is interesting, but Pema speaks in generalities about his feelings. Each new moment of anger or confusion feels like repetition of sentiments we heard him express earlier in the film.

The Only Son is worth a look for its insight into Himalayan village culture. But it’s a short film blown up to feature length, with an ineloquent narrator and lacking an ending. The decision Pema must make is truly a struggle, but it’s not really a story as it is presented here. He ends up in the same place where he began.

The Only Son (2013)

Directed by Simonka de Jong.

5 out of 10