Pawo Choyning Dorji’s ‘The Monk and the Gun’ Is a Modern Lesson on Traditional Wisdom With Timely Wit

A minor exchange in the second act of writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s modernization fable “The Monk and the Gun” captures the essence of the message and the skewered brilliance of the satire. Bhutan, the last nation on the planet to get internet access, is having its first election. BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera are covering the historic event. In order to get this right, the government is throwing a mock election as a rehearsal. The people can choose Red, Blue or Yellow, each representing a vague ideological stance. As they are also being taught to vote, they also get lessons in campaigning. The assembled throng is prompted to yell and defend their choices, pushed until the “Red” bloc is coached to “hate Blue,” and stop being so agreeable. “Why are you teaching us to be so rude,” an older woman asks the election instruction officials. “This is not who we are.”

The essence of the clash between Western culture and South Asian values is most astutely explained through the simplest of questions asked in passing. If citizens never fought for the vote, why do they need elections? Is that a new pig disease? What does a monk want with a gun? Are there even any guns in Bhutan? Like any true master, Dorji takes his time before answering. He keeps the audience guessing, allowing events to explain themselves to even the least discerning student. “The Monk and the Gun” is Dorji’s second film and was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. He brought a similar syllabus to his 2019 debut, the Oscar nominated “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”

Set in 2006, Bhutan is at a very real crossroads. They are facing ever-encroaching modernization, the crumbling of traditions, the abdication of an emperor “for the good of the people.” The Ura’s elderly lama hears the election educators will be coming to his village, and makes plans to break his meditation in order to “set things right” in the changing culture. He tasks the young Buddhist monk, Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk), with finding a gun, preferably two, in a country where such weapons are virtually unknown.

The lama is played by real-life lama Kelsang Choejey, the spiritual center of Ura. His meditational refuge is a means by which a lama generates compassion for all living beings. The lama never gives concrete reasons for wanting a gun. His motives can appear downright sinister in certain scenes, such as when we see the election official through the barrel. Tashi has learned well under his master, offering often cryptic answers to mundane questions as he passes through the village in search of the elusive weapon. Wangchuk is a natural and utterly relaxed comedian, deadpan and wondrous of all the comedy happening around him.

There are no professional actors in “The Monk and the Gun,” which makes the performances of the players authentic and heartfelt. They lived through the events told in this film. The Bhutanese characters are overwhelmed by technology, bewildered by the prospect of elections, and altogether new at consumerism. Villagers lead parades as new television sets are carried to homes; farmers sell their cows for satellite dishes. While Tashi is watching Daniel Craig play with guns as Agent 007 at a café showing of “Quantum of Solace,” he orders “black water,” which is the only way he knows how to address Coca-Cola. This is the brand of sly commentary which walks rampant in “The Monk and the Gun.”

Bhutanese art and culture are built on symbolism. The colors of the election choices, the juxtaposition of the grand beauty of the country to the solitary journeys of the individuals, and even automotive mechanical failures mean more than they show. Dorji saves the greatest symbolic space for the gun in the title. The gun is a symbol of Western modernization. It is not feared as much as it is studied, like an anthropological artifact of coming history. Guns are illegal in Bhutan. But the most pointed symbolism occurs on a bus full of people on their way to the lama’s full moon ceremony. A man sits with his offering, a large wooden phallus, painted red, in his lap. Seated beside him is a man who has a sack between his legs with two AK47s inside. He is an American, from “the land of Lincoln and JFK,” and other presidents whose terms ended because of guns.

“There are more guns than people in America,” Tashi is told, and he finds this wondrous. The peaceable Vajrayana monk does not associate the weapon with violence, merely an object necessary for the lama’s plans. The American visitor is Ron Colman (Harry Einhorn), a subtle nod to Ronald Colman, the actor who starred in Frank Capra’s 1937 classic “Lost Horizon.” But Mr. Ron hasn’t come to the Himalayas for enlightenment and eternal life. He is willing to pay a fortune for a rare American Civil War-era rifle which legend says killed many Tibetan soldiers centuries ago. It is the only gun in town, and makes so much noise the police are ultimately called in. Bhutanese symbolism aside, to this Western reviewer, the gun also represents slapstick in slow motion.

Dorji makes astute comments on the increasing polarization of the American political scene, even as the fear of elections is overtly associated with the punching and “beard-pulling” of India’s parliamentary sessions. Meanness infects the village, when a father (Choeying Jatsho) is pitted against his mother-in-law because they support different candidates, and is felt at school as his daughter (Yuphel Lhendup Selden) is bullied over political allegiance. The American gun collector and his Bhutanese guide, played with absurdly effective assurance by Tandin Sonam, are traditional comic relief.

The entire event is blanketed by the gorgeous cinematography of Jigme Tenzing. The Himalayas are magnificently captured, but every dirt road, lush flower bed, statue, home, farm and tree become indelible images of this film’s movement. The vast meditational seclusion is centered in the shots of Tashi as he is circling the impressive stone stupa which will ultimately be the site of the full moon ritual.

“The Monk and the Gun” is sweet, optimistic, and welcoming. This is not a repudiation of political conflict or modern commercial self-interest. Dorji finds the harmony of change. This film’s mock election may mock elections, but positive vibes win in a landslide. 

The Monk and the Gun” releases Feb. 9 in select theaters.