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“The Monk and the Gun” Showcases Bhutan’s Beauty

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 8th, 2024

The Monk and the Gun (Pawo Choyning Dorji, 2023) 4 out of 5 stars

How does one modernize a country that may not want to modernize? It is 2006 in the Kingdom of Bhutan—also known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon—deep in the Eastern Himalayas, and the beloved king has just announced his plan to abdicate. The hope is that Bhutan will thereafter develop democratic traditions, but for people who have never voted, this can seem like a meaningless ambition. In order to train the population in the ins and outs of choosing candidates, government ministers travel throughout the land, holding mock elections.

So begins The Monk and the Gun, the new film from Bhutanese director Pawo Choyning Dorji (Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom). Change is in the air, and not everyone is happy about that fact. Even more worrisome, perhaps, is when a rural Buddhist lama (Kelsang Choejey) asks his disciple, young Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk), to find him two guns before the next full moon, four days from now. When Buddhists want guns, something might be amiss.

l-r: Harry Einhorn, Tandin Sonam, and Tandin Wangchuk in THE MONK AND THE GUN ©Roadside Attractions

Further complicating the story is the arrival of an American gun collector, Ronald (Harry Einhorn), in search of what he hopes is a long-lost rifle from the United States’ Civil War. His guide, Benji (Tandin Sonam), brings him from the capital to that same lama’s distant village, just as the monk is about to get his hands on the very gun Ronald wants. Who will get it first, and what will the consequences be for all involved?

There are many other stories inside this mostly engaging film, following the daily lives of the villagers as they adjust to potentially radical transformation. While election workers explain how political campaigns work, factions emerge amongst neighbors, old petty jealousies rearing ugly heads. When not discovering heretofore unconsidered arguments, folks lounge in the local convenience store watching Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Even Tashi settles in front of the TV, wondering how he could get his hands on the AK-47 that 007 fires with such aplomb.

Tandin Wangchuk, center left, in THE MONK AND THE GUN ©Roadside Attractions

A careful study of human behavior from a variety of shifting perspectives, The Monk and the Gun never reveals its final destination until the very moment we arrive. Graced with the gorgeous landscapes of the region’s mountains, the film is careful to use these tools for narrative complexity, rather than coasting on their visual charm. And though most here are first-time actors, the performances are, on the whole, up to the cinematic challenge, with one unfortunate exception (sorry, Ronald).

On March 24, 2008, Bhutan officially became a constitutional monarchy with the election of its National Assembly (with the son of the abdicated king its new head of state). This film may end far before that culminating event, but the details of its plot serve as gentle prelude, comedy and drama combining to showcase the area’s great beauty. Guns or not, the Bhutanese are doing just fine.

center, l-r: Tandin Wangchuk and Kelsang Choejey in THE MONK AND THE GUN ©Roadside Attractions

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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