THE STORY – An American travels to Bhutan in search of treasure and crosses paths with a young monk wandering the serene mountains and instructed by his teacher to make things right.
THE CAST – Tandin Wangchuk, Deki Lhamo, Pema Zangmo Sherpa, Tandin Sonam, Harry Einhorn, Choeying Jatsho, Tandin Phubz, Yuphel Lhendup Selden & Kelsang Choejay
THE TEAM – Pawo Choyning Dorji (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 119 Minutes
For many, it can be easy to take for granted the basic structural systems in society that have felt ever-present. Some liberties and values may appear to be bedrock principles for many communities, but not all are able to transcend global boundaries. The act of introducing such novel ideas will be met with a wide range of opinions, but that is why it is necessary to view these perspectives. There are probably a great number of individuals who are not familiar with the political landscape of a country such as Bhutan, and “The Monk and the Gun” presents an insight into a new process and its effect on the local residents. What is presented is a mildly engaging portrait of the struggle to embrace modernity while keeping strong roots in the past.
The setting here is nearly two decades past, in 2006 when the country’s king formally abdicated his throne in order to allow for democratic elections to be held for the very first time. However, such a drastic change comes with its own set of complications. For many rural villagers, the concept is foreign and strange, with many needing direct contact from government officials to be explicitly told how this new process works. Among this chaos, an elderly lama in the town of Ura observes the shifting landscape and instructs a younger monk, Tashi (Tadin Wangchuk), to retrieve two guns. The purpose of such a request is at first unknown, but the monk goes out in search of one. He manages to do so, but this crosses paths with an American (Harry Einhorn) and his interpreter Benji (Tandin Sonam) and their attempts to purchase the gun themselves illegally. With these endeavors happening against a new horizon, the actual value of what’s at stake becomes of vital importance.
As a follow-up to his directorial debut, the Oscar-nominated “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” one can already get a sense of the sensibilities of Pawo Choyning Dorji has as a storyteller. The environments he crafts are quaint arenas where simple people take great value in the passions they hold dear. It’s a valiant effort to explore such territory, though one can’t be held back by the writing. Much like his previous film, the narrative has a relatively simple conceit that is rather flatly executed by stale dialogue. Whether in Bhutanese or English, the spoken words often bluntly state theme and motivation, leaving its commentary broadly communicated with little nuance. As a simplified tale, it can mostly work but also contributes to a lack of complexity with such a premise.
The script is a failure, well-compensated mainly by his direction, though, as the camera captures some idyllic scenery and strong compositions within the frame. Dorji’s directorial skills show much improvement from his last effort, to the point where the second half actually becomes a more engaging enterprise. As the mystery of the lama’s plan begins to dissipate and the true intentions are revealed, a growing tension is palpable without ever losing the warm humanity that is acutely felt in this tucked-away corner of the world. Even the plot conveniences have their charm, leading to a heartfelt conclusion on the optimism that comes with people choosing their own destinies while entering a modern era. The execution of the narrative isn’t consistently captivating, but Dorji does an admirable job at keeping one invested through the filmmaking.
All the performances maintain a grounded nature to them that fits the film’s tone while not being too overbearing a presence. Wangchuk has such an endearing presence as the monk, a character who is steadfast in his obligations without ever fully grasping the larger context that others attempt to force upon him. He maintains a delightful spirit that is easy to be charmed by. Sonam also has a beguiling energy that provides a great source of the comedic aspects, though interactions with his scene partner Einhorn are mostly serviceable. One of the more effective members of the ensemble is Deki Lhamo, a villager who is more frustrated by this process due to the strain these new alliances have put on her family. She embodies a concerned citizen representing the complicated gradations one must accept in this new system, a perspective often evasive from a script level. She brings a compelling presence to the role that is filled with sadness but also an engaging disposition.
There’s an undeniable sweetness at the core of “The Monk and the Gun” that can be engrossing. The exploration of embracing modernity while recognizing the strong cultural roots that already exist is an intriguing premise. For the most part, it is treated to some appealing characters and a wholesome atmosphere with just the slightest hint of unease to keep the narrative more absorbing. However, the script is just too heavy an anchor for the film to be wholly successful. The simplicity works against the more multi-faceted observations, and too many instances undermine that impact. It’s a fascinating journey not wholly told in the most riveting manner but one that still manages to be somewhat provocative all the same.