TIFF Review: ‘The Monk and the Gun’ is a Brilliant Story from Bhutan
by Alex Billington
September 17, 2023
“Embrace the simplicity of Bhutan and discover the richness within.” Another film about the mystical ways of Bhutan – this is the one of the best hidden gems of the 2023 fall film festival season. The Monk and the Gun is the second feature film written and directed by the extraordinarily talented Bhutanese filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji. His first film, called Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, was nominated for an Oscar in 2022 but it didn’t win. It’s a good film, but not one of my favorites. His new film, however, is an instant favorite. I loved this, really, really loved this film. It’s a fascinating philosophical look at life in Bhutan, told with confidence and filmed absolutely perfectly. And at the same time it’s also brilliant satirical commentary on America’s stubborn ways, as opposed to the more sensible Bhutan society based in Buddhism. Of course there’s something about Himalayan culture that I’m personally quite drawn to already, so I knew this might be my jam, but it’s also a sensational film that will connect with many viewers no matter where they’re from.
Much of the emotionally impactful experience of watching this is not knowing what’s going to happen next or what exactly it’s going to be about. As much as I want to write this review and rave about the film, I’m not sure how to balance my desire to bring attention to it and discuss it, with the notion that everyone needs to watch it without knowing what’s going on. I say this all the time anyway, but it’s so important and makes so much of a real difference with the experience. To prevent over-explaining, I’ll just stick with the basics. The Monk and the Gun is set in 2008 when Bhutan’s Royalty decided to introduce democracy to the country in an effort to “modernize.” The story follows an ensemble of people in and around Bhutan – with two main characters. The first is a woman who is the head of the election council, traveling to remote regions to teach people how to vote and get them registered for their very first elections. The second is a young monk whose lama instructs him to go find a gun – apparently the only gun in the entire country – and bring it to him to “make things right.” The tension in this story (especially as an American) is based around – what does this lama want with this gun and what he is going to do with it? Hopefully nothing bad… you’ll have to find out.
As a one-of-a-kind film made by a Bhutanese filmmaker, Pawo Choyning Dorji, it’s providing a profoundly distinct perspective on Buddhist philosophy and Himalayan culture that most of us are entirely unfamiliar with and can’t quite make sense of. There’s a number of amusing scenes in the film where the American man who comes to collect the gun encounters “culture shock” and is unable to even understand why anything is happening. The moments that made me laugh the most are scenes where they mock American sensibilities by showing how this guy thinks he can just pay money to make things happen, except the Bhutanese are not swayed by money, and don’t care. There is more to life to them than money. Bhutan is famous as being the only country in the world that doesn’t prioritize GDP (gross domestic product) because instead they focus on “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). This is also a theme of the film, with plenty of commentary pointing out how money-obsessed America is which gets in the way of their happiness. Most of the Bhutanese people seem quite content even if they’re not living the most modern, carefree, perfect lives. This is something the film examines brilliantly with nuanced aspects of the script and the unique interactions between characters.
Not only is watching The Monk and the Gun such a pleasant and uplifting experience, it’s the kind of film that will leave you profoundly affected by the story. At least that’s what I hope, and I think the filmmakers hope, too. I believe many people will watch this and think oh that was nice, and try to move on, but the story and these particular scenes with the American man will stick in their mind and stay with them for a long time. Which is the point. The film is a philosophical examination of the meaning of life through the lens of the Bhutanese people. It’s one of the best films criticizing the American way I’ve ever seen (all handled in a humble, honest, and caring way). Tandin Wangchuk plays the monk Tashi, and he’s the most memorable character. His journey is important; so are the journeys of everyone in this film – they all learn something from their experiences. I also must praise the cinematography by DP Jigme Tenzing, who portrays the stunning beauty of Bhutan while composing every shot a bit off-center, to give it a more unique and dynamic look. The Monk and the Gun is magnificent film made by a exceptional filmmaker, and I’m curious to see how everyone reacts to it. There’s so much to discuss, and to learn from The Monk and his desire for a gun.