I had the chance to see the new Bhutanese film The Monk and the Gun on the last day of September at the Woodstock Film Festival in New York. Although modest at present, the Bhutanese cinematographic repertoire continues to expand. Bhutan is a country that has a lot to say and teach the world, and is a unique country even among Asian Buddhist countries.
It's exciting to see this new film from the director of Lunana, a yak in the class, Pawo Choyning Dorji, who worked with Khyentse Norbu, a well-known filmmaker (The Cup, Hema Hema, Sing me a song while I wait, et Vara, a blessing) as producer and assistant. Not only a Bhutanese filmmaker, Dorji also studied political science, writing and photography. He has a keen interest in Bhutan's unique political and cultural development and a generational perspective that offers much to the outside world.
Dorji's two films form the basis of what is sure to be a brilliant and rich career, as his vision of modern life in Bhutan intersects with traditional methods, bringing humor, depth and great interest. The perspective he and his characters bring to the film, set in 2006 when the king of Bhutan decides to allow his country to become a democracy, creates intrigue and complications. In leaving the throne in what has always been a beloved monarchy, Bhutan is unlike any other queen or kingdom that is in conflict with the democratic processes of other countries. There has always been a peaceful transition of power in Bhutan through their royal lineage. Uniquely, this entry into voting, elections, candidates and the democratic process opened the way to problems the country had never faced.
In Moine, Dorji captures the confusion and tension for children, parents, elders and monks as this transition to a new model unfolds. It skillfully weaves various plots together to form a tapestry of complexity that is both realistic – as it happens – and a nod to Bhutan's beautiful storytelling lineage. Kunzang Choden, Bhutanese author and writer of The Circle of Karma () tells us that there is no word to tell a story in the Bhutanese language, but a reference to the slow unfolding of a tale:
In Bhutanese tradition, stories, fables and legends are not told but resolved (shigai in Bumthangkha) and released (Tang Shi in Dzongkha)… these concepts of liberation and unraveling are invested with great meaning.
Chandra Shekhar Sharma, lecturer at Phuntsholing College of Science and Technology, explains: “Folk tales have been a tool for Bhutanese society to transmit ideals and values from one generation to another through entertainment. " (Heart)
The story of the monk and the gun seems accessible to seasoned Buddhist practitioners from Eastern countries. ou Western descent. It raises questions and situations that most of us have never had to think about. After the film, the director gave a talk from his time zone of Bhutan, at 3 a.m., giving us more insight into what this film meant to him and his own experience growing up in Bhutan during the transition from monarchy to democracy.
One can only imagine that great things will come from this director and his team. One of the interesting aspects of Bhutanese cinema is that directors often use non-professional actors and crew, which gives a very realistic feel to dialogues and situations. Rather than standing out, this influence made him even more credible. As critic Stephen Farber writes:
Part of the film dramatizes the process of introducing mock elections to teach people how to vote, which proves to be a real challenge, as many local residents remain loyal to the king and reluctant to accept such a drastic change. Clearly, the filmmaker wanted to make an ironic and cynical comment on people's natural attraction to royalty and authoritarian regimes, a theme that remains relevant in many parts of the world outside of Bhutan.
I won't reveal too much about the storyline, because it's worth seeing for yourself. Several intertwined characters and their predicaments make for an entertaining but also meaningful journey through traditional life and rituals, modernity and their sometimes awkward encounters. Not only Bhutanese cinema, but also Buddhist films in general, are becoming more and more popular. This can only benefit the general population by sharing the Buddhadharma in an accessible, frank and enjoyable way for those unfamiliar with it.
About the Filmmaker: Pawo Choyning Dorji is a writer, photographer and filmmaker from the Kingdom of Bhutan. He worked as an assistant to Khyentse Norbu for the latter's feature film Vara: a blessing (2012). In 2016, he produced the critically acclaimed Bhutanese feature film Norbu. Hema Hema: Sing me a song while I wait. The film had its world premiere at the 69th Festival del film Locarno and won the Special Mention at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. His directorial debut Lunana: a yak in the classroom was nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film in 2021.* Dorji is receiving rave reviews from notable critics and accolades, including from the Toronto International Film Festival and the Woodstock, NY Film Festival.**
May this film meet with great success in distribution, allowing the director and his team to make other such wonderful films!
* Pawo Choyning Dorji (IMDB)
**The Monk and the Gun (TIFF)
Bhutanese folk tales: media of the common man with missions for society, Journal of Bhutan Studies (Heart)
Review of “The Monk and the Gun”: from Bhutan, an ironic satirical comedy about democracy and violence (Hollywood journalist)
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