From the Oscar-nominated director of “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” comes a delightful new fable called “The Monk and the Gun.” Pawo Choyning Dorji once again brings his wry wit and compassionate gaze to his homeland of Bhutan. This time, he explores the growing pains of a country transitioning to democracy in 2006 after the king’s sudden abdication.
We’re introduced to a cast of charming oddballs, like a young monk named Tashi who is tasked by his cryptic lama to retrieve a pair of firearms. Meanwhile, tensions flare as mock elections divide a family, and a seedy American collector arrives seeking a rare antique rifle. How do these threads connect? Well, you’ll just have to witness the clever ways Dorji weaves together this folksy tapestry.
Peppered with monk wisdom, barbed observations about Western influence, and plenty of stunning Himalayan vistas, “The Monk and the Gun” promises to take audiences on a refreshing cinematic journey. Dorji clearly knows and loves Bhutan, lending his second feature film an infectious spirit of compassionate mischief. So sit back and surrender to the surprising delights found in this idiosyncratic almost-Shangri La. Something tells me the twisty charms of Dorji’s latest underdog fable will leave a smile on your face.
Meeting the Locals
At the heart of this whimsical fable is Tashi, an affable young monk tasked by his cryptic mentor to fetch a couple of firearms. Why the lama wants heat, we don’t know yet. But Tashi’s journey introduces us to a cast of lovable locals that Dorji has crafted with insight and affection.
We meet Tshering, a beleaguered election official teaching villagers how to rally and vote for the first time. He tries rallying enthusiasm for the big changes ahead, but the villagers seem content with their king and aren’t so keen on this “democracy” thing. As one elder woman asks, why teach us to fight with our neighbors?
Tshering gets help from Tshomo, a conflict-averse woman whose family is being ripped apart by partisan politics. See, her stubborn husband Choephel is all-in supporting a candidate he thinks will bring modern luxuries like a bigger TV. But the mock campaign makes his mother stop talking to him and distracts from the family’s basic needs, like when their daughter just wants help with her homework. Oof, no wonder Tshomo looks exhausted!
Elsewhere, a seedy American named Mr. Ron has arrived with his guide Benji seeking a rare Civil War rifle rumored to be in the village. His obsession hints at a larger critique of US gun culture and intrusive Western influence. And when Benji risks arrest to earn money for his ailing wife, we get a glimpse at the plight of struggling city migrants.
So at its core, this is a story about the push and pull between tradition and globalization in a quietly dazzling place. Tashi’s journey ties these storylines together under the next full moon, along with the lama’s vague yet ominous plan. With its playful charm and colorful characters, Dorji has crafted a contemporary fable that promises some thought-provoking surprises. Just what will that rascally monk do with those guns?!
Big Ideas and Gorgeous Vistas
Woven subtly throughout “The Monk and the Gun” is insightful commentary on Bhutan’s first flirtation with democracy. The mock elections in 2006 came fast on the heels of TV and internet access, representing a rapid modernization that gives some locals whiplash. The film gently pokes fun at the notion that democracy automatically equals happiness. Indeed, Tshering’s rally lessons quickly sow division where harmony once stood.
This tension between ancient traditions and an influx of Western influence is captured beautifully by cinematographer Jigme Tenzing. His camera patiently follows Tashi on quiet, contemplative walks through golden hillsides and meadows grazed by cows. The stunning vistas and pacing convey a nostalgia for a way of life imperiled by coming changes.
When Tashi happens upon a shop with a TV, we get comical culture clash. Villagers are glued to the screen, marveling over an American spy and his arsenal of high-powered weapons. Dorji seems to ask with a wink: Is this what Bhutan really wants to import en masse? The irony of a monk seeking firearms highlights anxieties about having an unchecked gun culture.
Yet the film takes a balanced perspective. Some locals are clearly excited by modernization, like Choephel’s aspirations for his family. And Dorji resists portraying the West only negatively through the hapless Mr. Ron. When an election official tries engaging the American about democracy, he rudely brushes them off—a stinging critique of superficial Western engagement.
So while television and elections may erode a slower, more communal way of life, Dorji acknowledges young people can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Perhaps the solution this wise film gently offers is finding harmony between the old and new amidst unavoidable change. If anyone can offer answers, maybe it’s that puckish monk once he finally gets his gun!
Pulling It All Together
Dorji skillfully braids together an array of storylines into a unified tapestry. On one hand we have Tashi’s search for firearms intersecting with Mr. Ron’s hunt for an antique rifle. Meanwhile, election tensions divide families as officials try drumming up public enthusiasm. Each thread feels distinct, yet they converge seamlessly like a loose Robert Altman ensemble.
Visually, contrasts abound between erosion of old ways and the inevitability of change. Dorji’s patient camera gazes wistfully at the sublime Bhutanese hills before pulling back to reveal a tiny monk traversing the land. Later we get a shot of Tashi entering the foreground of a lunar landscape, overshadowed by telephone poles hinting at modernity’s encroach. These images movingly convey the bittersweet contradictions at hand.
What seems on the surface like a slight folksy comedy is actually infused with Dorji’s astute sociopolitical observations. Yet his witty touch keeps the commentary from ever feeling heavy or preachy. Just as Bhutan must find balance between past and future, Dorji suggests the way forward is through understanding multiple perspectives.
This graceful mastery culminates in a satisfying final act where Tashi hands his rifle over to the lama. Suddenly the cryptic remarks and ominous warnings crystallize into a beautiful message of hope. Few films manage to so artfully braid together tonal playfulness, cultural insight, emotional resonance, and narrative surprise. But that’s the magic of Dorji and his monks.
Like a gentle monarch, Pawo Choyning Dorji presides over “The Monk and the Gun” with wisdom, whimsy, and deep care for his subjects. This charming fable doubles as deft political satire, even as it celebrates the Bhutanese countryside and traditional way of life.
Dorji clearly knows his people, lending affectionate insight into a society in flux. He acknowledges the seductive pull of modern conveniences, yet remains anchored in Bhutan’s spiritual heart. There is no resentment towards the inevitability of change, only a wistful commemoration of what stands to be lost in the name of “progress.”
The film’s parting message, delivered by our monk and his lama, is one of maintaining identity amidst transition. Bhutan cannot reverse the tides of globalization. But like the sturdy stupas dotting its hillsides, the country can balance new coats of paint without losing its foundational shape.
So take delight in this pleasant cinematic stroll through a nation at a crossroads. With humor and compassion, Dorji captures a glowing snapshot of Bhutan’s landscape and soul before too much “modernization” sets in. Something tells me this timely fable will linger fondly in your memory like a fading rainbow over emerald valleys ringed by Himalayan peaks.
The Monk and the Gun
Pawo Choyning Dorji has crafted a gentle fable that delivers earnest political commentary with a playful wink. Balancing tones and perspectives with grace, "The Monk and the Gun" insightfully chronicles the growing pains of a nation amidst change. Its climax surprisingly yet satisfyingly ties together the threads of this folksy tapestry into an uplifting message of unity. With humor and compassion, Dorji makes a case for maintaining identity amidst the tides of modernization.
- Beautiful cinematography and landscapes
- Charming, quirky characters
- Playful, lighthearted tone
- Insightful commentary on Bhutanese culture and politics
- Strong ending tying elements together
- Uneven acting from nonprofessional cast
- Slow pacing at times
- Plot can feel disjointed with many threads
- Doesn't fully develop all characters
- American caricature verges on stereotypical