Anyone who wants to travel the world — vicariously, of course — will get a kick out of The Monk and the Gun, a film from Bhutan that had its world premiere at this year’s Telluride Film Festival. Director Pawo Choyning Dorji earned an Oscar nomination for best international film of 2021 for his Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, an enjoyable comedy-drama about the advent of modern technology in the remotest sections of Bhutan.
The director’s new movie also focuses on important transitions in Bhutan during the mid-2000s, when the king decided to abdicate and introduce elections for the very first time in the country’s history. Part of the film dramatizes the process of introducing mock elections to teach the people how to vote, which proves to be something of a challenge, since many local residents remain loyal to the king and reluctant to embrace such a dramatic change. Clearly the filmmaker intended a wryly cynical commentary on people’s natural attraction to royalty and authoritarian rule, a theme that remains relevant in many parts of the world outside Bhutan.
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The other significant part of the story, as suggested by the title, concerns an American visitor’s attempt to acquire a rare Civil War-era rifle from a local monk to present to a gun collector back home. The American, played by Harry Einhorn, is named Ron Coleman, an in-joke obviously inserted by the director for film buffs around the world. In Frank Capra’s 1937 movie Lost Horizon, the lead character was played by Ronald Colman. The story of that popular fantasy centered around the search for eternal life in a magical kingdom called Shangri-La, high in the Himalayas in a fictional country not unlike Bhutan. (Capra’s movie was of course shot in Hollywood.)
Dorji’s sly sense of humor extends beyond the name of the character. The attempt to acquire that vintage gun proves to be more difficult than initially suspected. It falls into the hands of another monk, who is reluctant to surrender it without a reasonable exchange. Ron and his Bhutanese cohort (Tandin Sonam) finally manage to negotiate a trade if they can acquire a couple of modern weapons — specifically AK47s — to present to the monks. Many people assume that the worship of these modern weapons of destruction is an exclusively American mania, but the film shrewdly suggests that certain demented macho obsessions are more universal than some may realize.
The film continues with a series of bizarre surprise reversals that include a startling religious ceremony, police intervention, along with the continuing efforts to educate the members of the community in the art of voting. Perhaps there are a couple of unnecessary complications on the way to the denouement, but the storytelling is lively and piquant, demonstrating the director’s sense of humor and sharp observational skills.
All of the actors, who include Tandin Wangchuk (a prominent singer in Bhutan), Kelsang Choejey (a real-life monk), Deki Lhamo and Pema Zangpo Sherpa, deliver persuasive performances. The film is also beautifully made, with striking cinematography of the magnificent Himalayan locations by Jigme Tenzing.
The slightly surreal conclusion, which involves a gigantic red phallus used in a religious ceremony, verifies the director’s comic vision. This film is seeking distribution (as well as a possible follow-up Oscar nomination); it deserves to find appreciative audiences.
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