A sprawling web of western influence arises in The Monk and the Gun, Pawo Choyning Dorji’s political satire set in 2006, against the backdrop of Bhutan’s first-ever democratic election. The film’s narrative provides wry observations about American culture and politics, as they intersect with a kingdom on the verge of major change. Although the movie builds to a meaningful crescendo, it remains, for the most part, more focused on the long shadow of western hegemony than on the people it represents on screen, but its central rigmarole—a culture clash stemming from a gun sale gone awry—proves intriguing enough to be entertaining.
Two years ago, Dorji’s sweet, saccharine drama Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom became Bhutan’s first Oscar-nominated movie. This feat was nearly matched by The Monk and the Gun, which made the shortlist for Best International Feature this year, but wasn’t among the eventual list of nominees (only one Asian film would make the cut: Japan’s Perfect Days, by German director Wim Wenders). Both of Dorji’s films share a reverence for Bhutan’s mountainous landscapes, and for the works of Dorjis’ mentor, the Bhutanese cinema pioneer Khyentse Norbu—a lama in Tibetan Buddhism, who directed some of the country’s very first productions in the late 1990s and early 2000s—but where Lunana revered tradition and simplicity, The Monk and Gun looks forward, towards change and social evolution, and the implications therein.
While arguably incomplete in its portraiture—the film rarely paints a meaningful political picture of the kingdom and its residents from a top-down perspective—its plot unfurls in mysterious and tongue-in-cheek fashion. As mock elections are held in the village of Ura, to get potential voters accustomed to the process, an elderly lama (Kelsang Choejey) instructs his young, dedicated assistant Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk) to procure him firearms so he can prepare for the oncoming changes, and for the arrival of an election official, Yangden (Pema Zangpo Sherpa), to their village in a few days’ time.
Meanwhile, city-dweller Benji (Tandin Sonam) covertly welcomes an American arms collector and enthusiast, Ronald (Harry Einhorn), under the guise of a national temple tour, but takes him to a far-flung village where an American Civil War rifle has mysteriously ended up. Ronald is willing to pay a pretty penny for this cultural relic, but while he’s out procuring the cash, its owner ends up selling the gun to Tashi for a pittance, leading to Benji and Ronald following Tashi back to Ura in the hopes of an exchange.
At its core, The Monk and the Gun represents an amusing cultural disconnect between an American outsider for whom guns have emotional significance and for whom money is the ultimate power, and a monk for whom neither of these cultural concepts apply. At the start of the film, Tashi has never even seen a gun, and his only context for the object is the trailer snippets he catches of an upcoming James Bond movie—a character new to him as well, since his village has only recently been equipped with Internet and satellite TV—but his ultimate calling is his duty towards his religious mentor (whose own motives remains hidden for most of the film). The resultant explicit and implicit debates on materialism form the movie’s satirical spine, bringing into focus its dueling cultural perspectives, which play out against lush green landscapes on the precipice of political upheaval.
At its core, The Monk and the Gun represents an amusing cultural disconnect between an American outsider for whom guns have emotional significance and for whom money is the ultimate power, and a monk for whom neither of these cultural concepts apply.
This potential upheaval, however, often ends up half-baked. Outside of this story of Tashi, Ronald and Benji—the latter of whom leaves his ailing girlfriend behind in the city, leading to a malformed commentary on his selfishness, which goes nowhere interesting—The Monk and the Gun also tries to zero in on the mock election through the eyes of Ura local Choephel (Choeying Jatsho), his wife Tshomo (Deki Lhamo) and their daughter Yuphel (Yuphel Lhendup Selden), who are forced to confront political differences for the first time, once Bhutan’s king abdicates his thrones. Choephel’s public support for one of the election candidates opens his daughter up to being bullied at school, while Tshomo attempts to remain neutral as she assists the arriving election overseer. However, while this subplot takes up a significant chunk of the movie’s 107-minute runtime, it often fails to contextualize the actual politics driving these wedges.
In reality, the parties involved in this election had remarkably similar policies, but the framing applied to Choephel’s family (and to all other characters experiencing political strife for the first time) implies a transmission of the modern American political milieu and its deep divisions, as though these ideological rifts and their unpleasant manifestations were an inherent tenet of modern bipartisan politics, but only in the western world, and thus, only stemming from international influence, rather than domestic problems. Dorji, though he completed high school in Bhutan, spent much of his time studying in India and the United States, and he brings an emigrant perspective to his work (his protagonist in Lunana, a young government teacher, wants to move to Australia). Exploring the ways in which American politics and culture trickle down to South Asia is vital, but in The Monk and the Gun, this often comes at the cost of understanding the complexities of this moment in time for Bhutanese politics—a major sea-change that occurred when Dorji was studying in Wisconsin.
Norbu, whose films loom large over Dorji’s work—and over Bhutanese cinema in general—has reckoned with similar themes throughout his career, especially through the lens of spirituality in an increasingly technological world, in films like Travelers and Magicians (the first production entirely in Bhutan) and in his recent Nepali feature Looking for a Lady With Fangs and a Moustache. Norbu’s image appears several times during The Monk and the Gun, both as a media figure on television and as a religious leader, but by invoking his work to this degree, Dorji sets an incredibly high bar for himself which he often fails to clear.
Norbu’s movies have a melodic and introspective sense of spirituality which Dorji seldomly matches in his filmmaking, which tends to be more grounded and naturalistic by design. But by invoking comparisons to Norbu’s work—in which the struggle between eastern and western identity is deeply felt—a film like The Monk and the Gun cannot help but play, at times, like a pale imitation or pastiche, with its distant observations on the differences between east and west embodied by two different characters (Ronald and Tashi), whose conversations need to be translated by a third party (Benji) whose own perspective on these differences is rarely explored. Dorji’s cinematic point of view, in the process, feels borrowed—the way Norbu took stylistic cues from his own mentor, Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci, before transforming them—but it never truly becomes his own. It’s as though Dorji were Tashi, following his lama’s dogma without a second thought.
By the end, The Monk and the Gun manages to execute enough narrative subversions to highlight new dimensions to these cultural differences, especially as they correlate to storytelling expectations. But by the time its numerous subplots collide—or rather, lightly brush up against each other—the film offers little beyond mild inversions of the broad strokes of American life and perspective, which play like observations from a distance too. Ironically, by failing to incisively critique either American or Bhutanese politics, the film itself becomes an embodiment of a cultural zeitgeist split by a prism, as though it exists between two worlds, unable to fully anchor itself to either one.
Published on February 9, 2024