Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 1st, 2021
Sing Me a Song (Thomas Balmès, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.
In Sing Me a Song, a sequel of sorts to his 2014 Happiness, director Thomas Balmès follows that earlier film’s young protagonist, Buddhist monk-in-training Peyangki, as he navigates the treacherous terrain of today’s universe. Though he hails from the mountainous region of his Bhutanese village of Laya, he is unprepared for the peaks and valleys, highs and lows of passion, brought on by the arrival of internet connectivity and other technologies. Embarking on a kind of Rumpsringa of his own devising, he leaves his monastery for the capital city of Thimphu, abandoning his faith for the more corporeal pleasures of city living. It’s not easy growing up at the crossroads of tradition and modernity.
Balmès begins his new documentary with footage from the old, giving us the boy version of Peyangki before showing us the young man he has become. He also contextualizes the updated story with information on how, since last time, Bhutan has upgraded its infrastructure to bring electricity and cyberspace to the most remote regions of the country. Unfortunately, these improvements have come at a cost, as now the young novices all carry mobile devices with them wherever they go, praying and doing chores with faces glued to their phones. There’s nothing quite like seeing the artifacts of the ostensible developed world refracted in the light of a different setting, devastating in their raw ugliness. Still, who are we to deprive others of that which we hold dear?
I am nevertheless surprised at how little oversight the older monks keep over their flock, allowing them free reign to do as they please, even as they remonstrate with Peyangki about his poor study habits. Perhaps that’s the Buddhist way, or just good policy, thereby allowing those so easily tempted to choose different paths. Watching the boys and teenagers play with toy guns and violent first-person-shooter video games is quite a shocker, however, their red robes and shaved heads in sharp contrast to the peaceful philosophy of their religion.
And then there’s Peyangki’s budding need for love, his hormones leading him to make contact with a young woman in Thimphu, Ugyen, who serenades him via WeChat with songs of his choosing. She works as a bar hostess to support herself and her daughter from an earlier marriage, though she is considering traveling to Kuwait for 2 years where she can make significantly more money (doing what is never specified). They make an incongruous pair, she older and already a bit world-weary and he a naïve romantic. Nonetheless, when he comes into some money form the gathering of local medicinal mushrooms, off he heads to Thimphu to meet his wannabe love.
Balmès photographs both people and nature in evocative compositions, treating both as painterly landscapes. Whether showcasing facial close-ups or jagged peaks, he sees beauty and emotion in the wildness of our human condition, no matter who and where. Life is complicated, and never more so than at the intersection of past, present and future. In Sing Me a Song, all three collide in a powerful amalgam of joy, pain and cinema.