There is very little written in the English language about the cinema of Bhutan, with only the broadest overviews of this still-emerging industry to be found at a glance. Not producing its first feature until the 1990s––and not producing one shot entirely within its borders until 2003––means that Bhutanese cinema is still finding a distinct voice. The biggest hits from this era have barely been seen outside the country for this reason; many were direct remakes of films from neighboring India, with any original efforts hampered by an overreliance on copying a perceived Bollywood “formula.”
Like most Western viewers, I don’t have any direct experience of Bhutanese films beyond the work of the country’s leading filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji, whose 2019 debut Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom quite literally put the cinema of his homeland on the map following its surprise Oscar nomination. However, a brief overview of the history and current state of their national industry proves helpful for assessing the reasons why his sophomore effort, the Oscar-shortlisted (but consequently un-nominated) The Monk and the Gun, feels so frustrating. Set in 2006, shortly after the Himalayan nation became the last in the world to get TV and Internet access, the period piece aims to analyze the tensions between religious and monarchist traditions, and the dawn of a democratic future. Imagine a Jia Zhangke effort layered in whimsy, and you’re halfway to understanding the film’s approach to dramatizing these themes.
The action is centred around mock elections held to teach the nation about democracy before the first official poll––a “gift from the King” understood by few members of the public, with only 10% of citizens even signed up to vote. The widespread disinterest and confusion sowed by this new system is when Dorji’s film is at its most engaging, but it largely just dangles plot threads it doesn’t care to analyze in greater detail, like a schoolkid getting bullied because his family supports the “wrong” campaign, or the party which is represented by the color yellow winning by a landslide due to the color’s association with the King. The latter factor is greeted with bemusement by an election official uneducated in Bhutan’s cultural specificities, shrugged off almost immediately so the film can pivot back to the offbeat crime caper unfolding elsewhere, which the writer-director clearly finds of far greater interest, to the film’s overall detriment.
This family-friendly, sub-Coens tale of an American arms dealer (Harry Einhorn) pursuing a monk who, via various plot contrivances, holds a rare antique gun from the American Civil War functions solely as allegory for the country coming to grips with democracy––it’s not entertaining enough to work on a surface level. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor about U.S. interventionism that broadly mimics the archetypal narrative dynamics of that quintessential American genre, the Western, but with no satirical sting to truly land this conceit. Dorji’s brand of storytelling can best be described as “gentle,” which is the wrong approach for material of this thematic weight. When honing-in on an American arms dealer aiming to take advantage of a developing country’s economy, the end result shouldn’t feel like something a streaming algorithm could conceivably recommend to viewers looking for cozy, conflict-free viewing.
To understand why this largely inconsequential criminal plot becomes the central driving focus, you have to look back at the current state of the Bhutanese industry. The few English-language articles about Bhutan’s national cinema lament its oft-repetitive nature, dramatizing Buddhist teachings within ultimately conservative, moralistic tales about preserving the country’s heritage in the wake of modernizing forces. Although its worldview is far more open to a modernized Bhutan, The Monk and the Gun still falls comfortably in line with that descriptor of a stereotypical Bhutanese film. This is presumably a factor as to why the drama surrounding the arrival of democracy is less of a focal point; these are themes audiences in the country have likely tired of, so have been reduced to simple shorthand. They provide necessary context to the period setting, but not enough to overshadow a central plot that subverts the usual expectations of Buddhism-inflected narratives. (At least on the surface; there are moral reasons behind why a monk uncharacteristically wants a gun, the underlying mystery which never provokes any intrigue.)
This all adds up to a work that may be perceived as more original within its native country, but internationally there’s a frustration for how it overlooks cultural specificities on the sidelines. Admittedly, this is a fault of global distribution for Bhutanese cinema; audiences in the country may have tired of the way in which films tread the same water exploring cultural tensions, but this is a novelty beyond their borders. What I find damning about the film––its refusal to sit with or explore the consequences of the country’s gradual transition to democracy––may be worthy of praise by national audiences, but makes it harder to truly embrace from an outsider’s perspective. This flaw is entirely subjective, of course; no Bhutanese filmmaker should be working based on the whims of a hypothetical Western audience, and going by my research, it at least tries something new within a largely worn-out formula. But when I’ve been severely underexposed to films which do analyze the same cultural tensions more incisively, it can’t help feeling lacking, even if it may prove revelatory to viewers in the country.
The Monk and the Gun opens on Friday, February 9.