Pawo Choyning Dorji’s film The Monk and the Gun is a warm, light-hearted, often funny story of a place shifting from one way of life to another, uncertain whether newer is necessarily better.
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What does a monk want with a gun? It’s a refrain repeated by multiple villagers and even an American in Pawo Choyning Dorji’s The Monk and The Gun, his follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. Set in 2006 over four days, during which a monk must mysteriously acquire a gun for his Lama, it’s also the lead-up to a mock election. After fifty-two years in power, the King of Bhutan has resigned. The first democratic elections are coming; first, though, the government must teach the population how to vote. Most people seem to be happy with their lives and wonder what Bhutan would want with democracy. People still feel loyal to the monarch. Keep in mind Bhutan is the only country that measures Gross National Happiness —
Dorji’s film is a warm, light-hearted, often funny story of a place shifting from one way of life to another, uncertain whether newer is necessarily better. It’s always a sunny day with blue skies and flowers blooming, shot beautifully by cinematographer Jigme Tenzing. It looks like a place where nothing bad happens.
Encroaching modernity in The Monk and the Gun
Like A Road to A Village, The Monk and The Gun is set in a remote village where modernity seems synonymous with Western (and American) values. It arrives with a mix of fanfare and skepticism. People are drinking Coke, discovering James Bond, and getting TVs for the first time now that they’re legal. At the same time, the forthcoming election has created rifts in the community. People who don’t understand the need for democracy and change butt heads with those who favour ‘modernity.’
The people who arrive to run the elections talk about the promise of democracy. Countries worldwide have gone to war for it. But The Monk and The Gun never fully engages with social issues that the characters might face. There’s a nod to the poverty and debt the characters are experiencing. One family that relies on the generosity of a parent for food and money may be at risk of losing it once the patriarch publicly holds political views counter to his mother-in-law.
The Bhutanese man from the city who acts as the American’s guide has a wife who needs dialysis, which must be expensive; it’s clear he’s desperate for the money this job might bring. But there’s no real political discussion about how the monarchy may have precipitated poverty and desperation or how the new political parties plan to fix it except in the abstract. Instead, we marvel at how the monk uses the gun and society reacts to elections.
The Monk and the Gun drops you into Bhutan in 2016
The Monk and The Gun is worth seeing as an insight into Bhutan’s customs, places, and gorgeous landscape alone. Cynically, though, the film feels made for a Western film festival audience who would gawk at why anyone would reject elections or monks might want guns. An American Civil War gun enthusiast is our sort of surrogate character, confused about why anyone must learn to vote or throw away good money when they’re in massive debt. He gets the biggest laugh lines. Dorji is a capable director, effectively blocking scenes with multiple characters to show exchanges of power. There’s even some visual wit to how the American and his guide must barter with monks (and later police officers) for a precious gun. Dorji’s images often read like a light showdown between American imperialism and traditional Bhutanese culture.
Related reading/listening to Pawo Choyning Dorji’s The Monk and the Gun
More Pawo Choyning Dorji: Listen to our podcast on the 2021 Best International Feature Oscar. We discuss Dorji’s Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, which was nominated.
More films like The Monk and the Gun: TIFF 2023 programmed several films set in Asia about the ambivalence of encroaching modernity (and capitalism). Read our review of Pema Tseden’s Snow Leopard. Stay tuned for our TIFF 2023 review of A Road to a Village.