Producers: Jean-Christophe Simon, Hsu Feng, Stephanie Lai and Pawo Choyning Dorji  Director: Pawo Choyning Dorji   Screenplay: Pawo Choyning Dorji  Cast: Tandin Wangchuk, Deki Lhamo, Pema Zangmo Sherpa, Tandin Sonam, Harry Einhorn, Kelsang Choejay, Choeying Jatsho, Tandin Phubz and Yuphel Lhendup Selden   Distributor: Roadside Attractions

Grade: B

There’s something Ealingesque about Pawo Choyning Dorji’s second feature, despite its being set in Bhutan, about as far away from England as you can get.  “The Monk and the Gun” is also set in 2006, when the Himalayan country was preparing for its first democratic elections, necessitated by King Jigme Singye Wangchuk’s decision to turn over his absolute power to a council of state and a national assembly.  The process included a mock election to educate the populace in the process before the actual election of representatives in 2008. 

Dorji’s screenplay is constructed around several interlocking plot threads.  One focuses on Tshering Yangden (Pema Zangmo Sherpa), a government official charged, along with her aide Phurba (Tandin Phubz) with preparing for the mock election in the village of Ura, where Choephil (Choeying Jatsho) has become so aggressive in support of one candidate that it has affected the relationship of his wife Tshomo (Deki Lhamo) with her mother, who supports the rival candidate. He has also made things difficult for his daughter Yuphel (Yuphel Lhendup Selden), who’s bullied by her cousins at school because of her father’s stand.   

Another follows Benji (Tandin Sonam), a urban man with an ill wife, who has made arrangements to lead American gun collector Ronald Coleman (Harry Einhorn)—the character’s name obvious a cheeky reference to the actor who played Robert Conway, the British diplomat accidentally taken to the timelessly idyllic Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s 1937 of James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon”—to a rare rifle, an antique from the American Civil War kept as a sacred relic of a war with Tibet by a Buddhist monk.

A third thread, which gives the film its title, centers on the region’s revered Lama (Kelsang Choejay), whose constant prayer and meditation in a tiny temple is credited with the peace and harmony of the district.  He instructs his young attendant Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk) to bring him two guns by the day of the Full Moon, on which the mock election will occur, in order, he says, to “set things right.”  Tashi obediently goes off to fulfill his duty, though guns are extremely rare in Bhutan, except for the revolvers policemen carry.

What the Lama’s intentions might be is left hanging until the film’s final act, by which time the various plot elements have become intertwined.  Benji and Coleman make a deal with the monk to purchase the gun—though at a lower price than they’ve offered, which the monk considers too much—but before they can get the cash together, Tashi has arrived, and the monk gives him the firearm out of respect for the Lama.  When they then try to purchase it from the young monk, he requires two AK47s, which he’s just seen in a James Bond movie on a television in a store he visits during his wandering, in return, which sends them to an arms dealer who can acquire them from India.  Meanwhile Tshomo and Yuphel visit Yangden in search of an eraser which the girl needs for school but her father has failed to provide due to his electioneering.  When the various threads finally come together, the mock election turns out fine in terms of organization, but the result is lopsided for reasons that should have been foreseen.

Leisurely and humane, the film is filled with wry observations and gentle satire about how the move to democracy, and the opening of the country to outside influences (television and the internet are new and amazing—even the cola Tashi calls “black water” is a recent arrival) will change Bhutan (one elderly woman criticizes the electoral process for causing people to be rude to one another, while a man dismisses the election officials’ requirement for his precise birthdate, which he doesn’t know, with a muttered complaint about such useless information) will inevitably change Bhutan, as well as the difficulty Westerners have in understanding the Bhutanese mentality. (Coleman is genuinely bewildered by what the Bhutanese consider important, and equally nonplussed when asked by a man to explain freedom and democracy, coming as he does from “the land of Lincoln and JFK.”)  When the reason behind the Lama’s desire for the guns is revealed, it’s utterly consistent with the goals of peace and harmony he’s looked upon as ensuring for the community, and totally at odds with Western expectations.

The film is lovely to look at, with cinematographer Jigme Tenzing and production designer Chungdra Gyeltshen making use of the Bhutanese locations to create wide-screen images that, with repeated visuals of the lushly colored fields through which Tashi journeys, create a bucolic atmosphere. Nonetheless the effects of incipient modernization are demonstrated in the urban scenes and even in village sequences where things like television are beginning to take over people’s time. The unhurried pacing of Dorji and editor Hsiao-Yun Ku, along with Frederic Alvarez’s score, adds to the mood of a traditional society just beginning to feel the effects of a transformation that will inevitably bring greater change, for good and ill.

With performances, many from non-professionals, that are direct and unaffected, “The Monk and the Gun” genially but incisively portrays a society in transition and, through Coleman’s character, the attitude of an outside world that can’t quite comprehend its peculiar culture but is destined to play a significant role in its future.