How do you make a film about ancient Tibetan history and legend, while keeping it relevant to a modern audience? It helps if, as is the case with Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint, your director is a Tibetan Buddhist lama, and you have over 50 Tibetan monks in your cast and crew -- and a story full of human drama that centers around a fascinating character. The film tells the story of Milarepa, an 11th century yogi and poet who rose from a tragic youth and a period spent studying black arts so that he could exact murderous revenge, who went on to achieve "enlightenment" and become one of the most famous of the Tibetan Saints.
The film's storyline sticks pretty close to Tibetan Buddhist legend: Milarepa, born as Thopaga (played by various actors as he ages, and by monk Jamyang Lodro as an adult) to a wealthy merchant family, enjoys a pampered existence in his youth, until his father suddenly falls ill and dies, leaving his estate in trust with his brother to hold for Thopaga until the young boy comes of age to marry his cousin, to whom he is betrothed. The uncle, a greedy and deceitful man, steals Thopaga's estate and forces the boy, his mother and his younger sister to live in poverty, surviving off scraps. Thopaga's mother, Kargyen (Kelsang Chukie Tethong, who also provides some of the vocals for the soundtrack) is bitter and angry at the unfairness of her brother-in-law's actions, but is powerless to change things.