Friday, February 09, 2024

Submitted by Bhutan: The Monk and the Gun

America ought to pursue closer ties with Bhutan, considering their long history of border disputes with Communist China and their cultural and religious affinity with occupied Tibet. Traditionally, the nation has been isolationist. They do not have official diplomatic relations with many countries, including the U.S. and both Chinas (but we do have “friendly” consular relations). That said, this American arriving on mysterious business is probably not the best person to bring our countries closer, especially as he pursues the titular robed Buddhist in director-screenwriter Pawo Choyning Dorji’s The Monk and the Gun, one of 15 films shortlisted for the Best International Film Oscar, which opens today in New York.

Much to his bafflement, Tashi’s abbot requests he obtain two guns by the next full moon. That would be in four days. This will be a tall order in the isolated and overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, even though they are in the process of modernizing.

Indeed, 2006 was a confusing time for many traditional Bhutan citizens. The King has voluntarily abdicated, setting the stage for the nation’s first democratic elections. Since campaigning is new to everyone, the King scheduled a “Mock Election,” to familiarize voters with the process. It is Tshering Yangden’s job to register voters in Tshomo’s village. Unfortunately, Tshomo already knows plenty about the upcoming election. Her husband has dramatically broken with the rest of her family to support a candidate advocating greater industrialization. Nevertheless, the village assigned her to serve as Yangden’s assistant.

Meanwhile, Ron Coleman (possibly a sly reference to Ronald Colman, the star of
Lost Horizon?) arrives on a strange mission. He has traced an extremely rare Civil War-era rifle to Bhutan. He is willing to pay top dollar for it, but if a monk like Tashi requests it, the devout hardscrabble owner could never refuse him.

Monk and the Gun
captures a fascinating and possibly unprecedented period in history, in which an absolute monarch voluntarily relinquished power and established a democratic system of government that almost none of his countrymen demanded. Dorji evokes the mood of uncertainty quite vividly. Viewers also get a sense of Bhutan’s isolation and its striking, but lonely natural vistas.

However, the quiet irony does not fully land, especially with regards to Coleman, who, as portrayed by Harry Einhorn, is little more than a symbol of Western materialism. However, Deki Lhamo contributes a wonderfully warm and humanizing performance as the conflicted Tshomo. Pema Zangpo Sherpa also nicely turns Yangden’s subtle but meaningful arc. However, Tandin Wangchuk’s Tashi also largely serves as a taciturn symbol of traditional deference.

The Monk and the Gun
largely connects intellectually rather than on an emotional level. It looks great and it is very cool to see Bhutan developing a cottage film industry. As a country, we should be cultivating our shared interests with the Himalayan nation, so Asian film connoisseurs should definitely check it out, but its reserved tone might put off viewers with more conventional tastes. Recommended for art-house patrons, The Monk and the Gun opens today (2/9) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.