Coming off the recent success of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, the first Bhutanese film nominated for an Academy Award and director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s debut feature, there is no doubt that Dorji’s heartwarming approach has put Bhutanese cinema on the map. The Monk and the Gun is a similarly feel-good film, highlighting the unique aspects of Bhutanese culture while providing heart, comedy, and a thought-provoking political message.
The Monk and the Gun is set in 2006, as the Kingdom of Bhutan is transitioning from a constitutional monarchy to a democratic system for the first time. As officials prepare for the country’s first elections, an American arrives with a secret goal, and a Buddhist monk is tasked with finding a gun for his master. These three story threads weave together throughout The Monk and the Gun, a film populated by a colorful cast of characters and set amidst the dramatic landscape of Bhutan, with its deep greens, wide open skies, and soaring mountains.
At times, this dramatic landscape makes Bhutan feel cut off from the world. A small country that has historically been very slow to modernize, Bhutan forbade all foreign tourism until the 1970s and had a ban on television and the internet until 1999, making it one of the last countries in the world to get internet access. This mountain kingdom was also one of the most recent countries to transition to democracy, with a monarchical government system until the first elections in 2007-08. Having recently modernized, Bhutan occupies a unique space in today’s globalized world, a position that The Monk and the Gun explores in detail.
Bhutanese director Pawo Choyning Dorji is in a unique position to tell a story about Bhutan’s transition to democracy. Dorji attended high school in Bhutan and India, went to university in the United States, and then returned to India to pursue studies in Buddhist philosophy before becoming a filmmaker. With this multilayered perspective, Dorji is able to interrogate the complications that arise when these different cultures interact. As the people of rural Bhutan encounter soda pop, James Bond, and democracy for the first time, The Monk and the Gun reckons with the ramifications of modernization, globalization, and the influence of American culture on a population that has been largely isolated. The film shows how changes and reforms may clash with deep cultural roots, ignoring what may be lost for the sake of modernization.
While offering thought-provoking sociopolitical commentary, Dorji keeps a light touch, approaching many issues through a satirical or comedic perspective. There are many scenes poking fun at America’s gun culture, the divisive tension within its partisan political structure, and how American emphasis on capitalism and wealth clashes with Bhutan’s Buddhist background, which places importance on accumulating karma and merit through good deeds and contentment. In one humorous scene, a rural farmer refuses an offer from the American tourist, stating that the price is much too high and much too generous. The American, misunderstanding, offers more money, not realizing that money offers little value to this rural Buddhist.
At times, this light touch works against the film. Its conventional story structure is reminiscent of K-dramas or soap operas, balancing A-plot, B-plot, and C-plot before attempting to weave everything together at the end. The performances are also mixed at times; the cast features several non-professional actors, some of whom are excellent and others who seem to struggle with the material. Still, what The Monk and the Gun lacks in exceptional filmmaking, it makes up for in its crowd-pleasing nature and positive message. With splashes of humor and moments of dramatic irony that play with audience expectations, The Monk and the Gun is a simple, heartwarming tale that is sure to bring joy to viewers and raise the profile of Bhutanese cinema once again.
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The Monk and the Gun — Bhutan/France/USA/Taiwan. Dialog in Dzongkha and English. Directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji. Running time 107 min. First released September 1, 2023 (Telluride Film Festival). Starring Tandin Wangchuk, Deki Lhamo, Pema Zangmo Sherpa, Tandin Sonam, Harry Einhorn.
This article is part of Cinema Escapist’s dedicated coverage of the 2023 Vancouver International Film Festival.