May 24, 2024

What would a monk want with a gun? Bringing wisdom and a streak of wry humor to his Bhutan-set sophomore feature, “The Monk and the Gun” director Pawo Choyning Dorji teases any number of possible answers to that question over the course of a droll, shrewdly satirical fable, in which Western values crash against a seemingly intransigent (but potentially more enlightened) South Asian culture.

A gifted storyteller who keeps audiences guessing about his characters’ motives until the surprising moment everything comes together, Dorji was born in Bhutan, but attended university in Wisconsin. That uncommon mix of influences gives him a unique perspective on both his home country and the way the sparsely populated, slow-to-modernize kingdom is perceived by the outside world (Bhutan was basically the last corner of the world to get internet access). The director’s natural human-interest sensibility earned devoted fans — and an unexpected Oscar nomination — for his appealing 2019 debut, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”

Now, Dorji delves into more complicated matters, setting his more expansive follow-up in the year 2006, just as Bhutan was shifting to a democratic system. The movie, which is representing Bhutan once again at the Academy Awards, was clearly intended for export more than local play, kicking off what looks to be a healthy festival run at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. The nascent-democracy angle proves especially fascinating (and not at all as you’d expect) for audiences in the United States, which has been touting the advantages of popular rule for a quarter millennium.

But are Americans any happier or better governed than the people shown here? They’re certainly better armed, which serves as a running joke in a movie where multiple characters are competing to get their hands on an antique firearm. The Bhutanese characters are bewildered by the prospect of elections (“Is that a new pig disease?” asks one), which their ruler has granted them without being forced by any kind of revolution. As such, the public must be instructed on how to vote, making for several amusing scenes in which neighbors who once got along are pitted against one another.

“Why are you teaching us to be so rude? This is not who we are,” objects one old woman at a rehearsal rally. No question Dorji is commenting on the increasingly polarized American political scene with that line. Most of these citizens seem content with their present circumstances, passing up offers of money and the chance to pick their own leader. The Bhutanese already have a king, after all, and in one of the film’s funniest gags, a color-coded mock election results in a landslide for the yellow candidate. Why? Because yellow is the color of His Royal Highness.

Not everyone is happy with the changes taking place in the country. The monk referenced in the film’s title (played by Tandin Wangchuk, who looks like a naive teenager, but is actually a relatively worldly rock singer) has a blissfully oblivious personality. He’s first seen strolling through photogenic golden fields, circling a stone stupa on his way to visit an elderly lama (real-deal lama Kelsang Choejey). Voicing his concerns about Bhutan’s turn from Buddhism to consumerist self-interst, the lama instructs his young assistant to fetch him two guns in time for the upcoming Full Moon ceremony.

Dorji deliberately leaves the old man’s intentions up to our imagination. (If this were an American movie, he’d be planning to shoot someone, but this being Bhutan, it’s anybody’s guess.) Guns aren’t easy to come by in a country where possessing one can get a person imprisoned for several years. But the monk isn’t alone in pursuing the only weapon anyone in these parts can think of — a rare rifle from the U.S. Civil War which has somehow wound up in this far-flung mountainous country between China and India. A short, shifty-looking American named Ronald Colman (Harry Einhorn) has his eye on the same gun.

English speakers will instantly detect something off about Einhorn’s performance. Physically, he’s a timid alternative to the boisterous Joe Don Baker type who so often embodies Americans abroad. Given Dorji’s satiric intentions, it’s intriguing that he preferred to represent the U.S. with such a hapless comical figure. Zoom out, and the film comes to represent a bigger-picture critique of how Western concepts — from mass-exporting toxic masculinity (via James Bond movies) to making “black water” (Coca-Cola) the global drink of choice — are corrupting life in this still-innocent outpost.

While the introduction of elections may be seen as an empowering step in Bhutan, Dorji acknowledges that it’s part of a larger shift away from a collective civic identity toward a more self-interested (American) mentality. Ronald offers the owner of the antique rifle a small fortune, and the man refuses, preferring to gift the gun to the young monk instead. Dorji takes his time laying out the various pieces of what proves to be an incredibly well-designed puzzle (a good example being a phallic wood carving, which gradually takes shape over several scenes).

Once the monk hands the weapon over to the lama, the film can finally reveal how this desperate leader intends to use it. Suddenly, everything that’s come before makes sense, as Dorji weaves the threads together for a humorous and hugely satisfying finale. Until this point, the film has shown how American culture has been shaping modern Bhutan, but in this moment, it’s made clear what the country can teach the rest of the world.

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