Film, Film Review

REVIEW: The Monk and the Gun (2023) dir. Pawo Choyning Dorji

Bo knows modernity?


There’s a great Nike commercial from 1989 with Bo Jackson where other athletes repeat the phrase “Bo knows…” followed by “football,” “baseball,” and so forth, with fragmented clips of him showing off his multi-sport excellence. When the hockey clip rolls, Wayne Gretzky shakes his head and just says “No.” Bo doesn’t know hockey. Jackson very obviously doesn’t know hockey, and ice hockey is so fundamentally different from all of the running-based sports he played that the sign of the lumbering Jackson standing on those ⅛’’ blades is comical. The two just don’t go together.  

In a way, this gets at the appeal of The Monk and the Gun, a brand new film that is already among the best-known films to ever come out of the small country of Bhutan. What might a Buddhist monk have to do with a gun? The two contrast in a generative display of symbols. A monk and a gun separately both hold their own symbolic power; together, they create a completely new symbol. 

Coming off of the success of 2019’s Academy Award-nominated Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, Bhutanese director Pawo Choyning Dorji finds himself shortlisted again for the Academy’s Best International Feature Film with The Monk and the Gun. His new film is a confident story about navigating modernity in a world that has already moved past modernity. It’s 2006 and the Kingdom of Bhutan is about to become the world’s youngest democracy. The beloved king has abdicated to initiate democratic reform. Internet and television come with the governmental changes, making it among the last nations in the world to join the grid. Unpopular at first, the government sets out to teach people how to be democratic citizens. Registering those who know their birthdays to vote and hosting mock elections are the top priorities. Amidst all of this change, an elderly lama (Kelsang Choejey) in a multi-year meditation emerges from his spiritual practice to tell his disciple, Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk), that he needs two guns before the full moon for a ritual, an auspicious day that aligns with the election day. Tashi knows no more than we do about the ritual and never asks; he trusts his master enough to know no harm will come of it. 

Getting the guns isn’t so easy. Nobody in Bhutan seems to have seen one, let alone owns one. To make matters worse, Tashi competes with an American gun collector named Ron (Harry Einhorn) and his local guide Benji (Tandin Sonam) to secure what might as well be the only rifle in Bhutan. (Apparently, it’s a very rare American Civil War rifle.) The sight of the monk slinging the gun across his back with the idyllic pastoral backdrop in the background is jarring at first. Unlike Daniel Craig’s James Bond, observed by Tashi at a local store showing one of his films, the monk has no capacity for violence. His pious hands efface the gun as a symbolic tool of death to comedic effect. He’s so innocent that he turns down an inordinate amount of money from Ron for the gun so that he can fulfill his master’s request to find guns before the full moon. His religious tradition and beliefs overpower any materialist temptation, a temptation that through the character of Ron is represented by the United States. 

The US comes up a few times, in part thanks to Ron’s pasty white skin that is kind of like a neon sign reading, “I’m a foreigner!” Once, to justify Ron’s interest in the rifle, Benji explains the “importance” of guns in Ron’s culture to Tashi by comparing the Second Amendment to religious scripture. The moment is of little significance in the scheme of the larger film. Religion, tradition, and modernity collide throughout The Monk and the Gun. “It doesn’t matter what Buddha taught 2,500 years ago. This is modern thought, of course, it will be good for us,” one dim government man tells the Buddhist monk, a person whose very sartorial markings suggest they care quite a bit about what the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago! This quote gets closer to the heart of the matter. Modernity — even democracy — creates divisions that didn’t exist in the pre-internet monarchy of Bhutan. In one of the film’s most memorable conflicts, at the mock election, the people are given sides to pretend to cheer for and against. The moderator divides the crowd in half and forces a physical partition of the group. The group, once united, is divided by the new reforms. And quite purposely at that. The moderators operate under the assumption that partisan affinity and polarization go hand-in-hand with modern thought. “Why are you teaching us to be rude? This is not who we are,” an elderly man retorts to one of the government officials.

The Monk and the Gun isn’t anti-modern. Never does Dorji seem to operate under the assumption that the internet or television are antithetical to Bhutanese life, or that the only way to hold onto traditional values, such as religious ones, is to abdicate from globalization and contemporary life. That would be an oversimplification of what’s happening here and at the lama’s full moon ritual. (There’s also some sort of giant penis offering that I know too little about to make sense of.) Dorji’s second film, instead, excels as a reflection of change and the way manufactured ideologies prop up systems of governance. It’s not that democracy itself is bad; it’s that the anti-sociality of modern life, usually lived out in democracies of some sort, tears apart natural human fraternity. Even the children of The Monk and the Gun bully each other and start fights because of their parents’ political allegiances — allegiances that didn’t exist mere months ago and thus can’t possibly reflect deep divides in the social fabric. They didn’t come with the change of government as a side-effect; they were taught. 

The Monk and the Gun
dir. Pawo Choyning Dorji
106 min.

Now playing at the AMC Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers and the AMC Dine-In in Framingham

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film. 

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