Review | ‘The Monk and the Gun’: A sly satire of democracy’s perils

(3.5 stars)

As “The Monk and the Gun” opens and we listen to radio reports about upcoming mock elections in Bhutan, an elderly lama, played by real-life lama Kelsang Choejay, instructs his young monk attendant Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk, whose surprising day job is frontman of the Bhutanese alt-rock band Misty Terrace) to bring him back two guns so he can “set things right.” The purpose of this strange and potentially alarming mission will remain a mystery until the film’s climax.

Set during the small Himalayan country’s transition from monarchy to parliamentary democracy, “The Monk and the Gun” offers a sly satire of today’s polarized world. Written and directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji, and focusing on Bhutan’s preparations for the democratic elections first held in 2008, it shares the same wry spirit and gentle tension between tradition and modernity that characterized the Bhutanese-born, American-trained filmmaker’s heartwarming Oscar-nominated 2019 film, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” but with some added bite.

The central conflict is not between candidates but between the population of a small mountain village, who don’t see the benefit of voting, and the elections officials who have traveled from the capital to convince them otherwise. “Why are you teaching us to be so rude?” a bewildered old woman asks the bureaucrats (Pema Zangmo Sherpa and Tandin Phubz) who are encouraging villagers to shout one another down at a practice rally. “This is not who we are.”

There’s another, more pertinent question, raised by an American visitor: “People have to be taught how to vote?” Well, yes, in a country that didn’t legalize television and the internet until 1999.

But there are other lessons to learn in this sweet, off-kilter comedy.

The American (Harry Einhorn — like most in the cast, a non-actor making his debut) is Ronald Coleman, whose name is an unsubtle nod to actor Ronald Colman, the star of “Lost Horizon,” a fish-out-of-water tale about Western travelers who crash-land in the fictional Tibetan valley of Shangri-La.

This Ron has arrived in Bhutan seeking a Civil War-era rifle that has somehow turned up in the possession of a rural farmer. Accompanied by his interpreter (Tandin Sonam), Ron hopes to buy it for a collector back home. But Tashi manages to get hold of the weapon first.

It’s an unexpectedly suspenseful shaggy dog story, as well as a pretty funny one, with subtly pointed barbs about American politics. At one point, a villager asks Ron whether he can share some insights about the peaceful transfer of power, since he comes from “the land of Lincoln and JFK.”

America is a nation where there are more guns than people, as another character notes, in sharp contrast with the film’s setting, where obtaining one rusty firearm is difficult enough. (It’s no accident that the gun in dispute dates to a historic American conflict.)

“The Monk and the Gun” didn’t make it to the Oscars this year, although it was Bhutan’s official submission. That’s a shame. It’s a sharper commentary on the contemporary world than “Lunana.”

Though it takes place in the recent past, at a time when the Bhutanese people were still getting used to such American imports as James Bond movies and “black water” (Coca-Cola), the film has something important to say about the promise and the perils of the present.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains a large red wooden phallus — a traditional Bhutanese symbol of protection against evil — and smoking. In Dzongkha and some English with subtitles. 112 minutes.

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