Rifles and Rituals: Satire and Societal Shifts in Bhutan as Portrayed in 'The Monk and The Gun


Pawo Choyning Dorji, whose film "The Monk and the Gun" offers insight into the Himalayan nation's modernization process.

"The Monk and the Gun," a captivating Bhutanese film directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji, has been recognized by the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, earning a spot on the shortlist for Best International Film at the upcoming 96th Academy Awards ceremony, scheduled for March 10 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

Among the 15 films vying for the International Feature Film category, "The Monk and the Gun" stands out for its innovative storytelling, thematic richness, and stellar performances by the cast. It has received accolades globally, winning awards such as Best Original Screenplay at the Stars Asian International Film Festival in Los Angeles, the Director’s Choice Award at the Illuminate Film Festival in Santa Barbara, and the Special Jury Prize at the Rome Film Festival, among others.

Director Pawo Choyning Dorji gained international recognition with his previous work, "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom," which was also nominated for an Oscar in the same category in 2022. While not winning the award, his contributions to Bhutanese cinema were acknowledged domestically, earning him the esteemed Druk Thuksey medal.

Expressing gratitude for the opportunity to represent his country and culture, Dorji thanked the entire team behind "The Monk and the Gun" for their dedication and support. The Bhutan Information, Communications, and Media Authority (BICMA) selected the film as Bhutan’s official submission for the Oscars, citing its authentic portrayal of Bhutanese life and exceptional craftsmanship.

"The Monk and the Gun" had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2023, captivating audiences with its poignant narrative and captivating cinematography. This marks the third time a Bhutanese film has received an Oscar nomination, following "The Cup" in 1999 and "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom" in 2022, showcasing the growing recognition of Bhutanese cinema on the global stage.

Synopsis of The Monk and the Gun

With a relaxed yet insightful approach, "The Monk And The Gun" presents a dynamic fusion of modernity and tradition, seamlessly blending urban and rural settings. Inspired by Robert Altman's style, writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji sets the film in 2006, unfolding the story of various characters in a quaint Bhutanese village as they navigate the impending changes—such as the introduction of television, internet, cellphones, and the nation's first democratic election—that are sweeping across the country.

The narrative kicks off when an elderly Lama, portrayed by the real-life Lama Kelsang Choejey from Ura village, interrupts his meditation to send a young monk, played by Tandin Wangchuk, on a quest to find guns upon learning about Bhutan's forthcoming election. This proves to be a challenging mission as firearms are virtually unknown in the country, except for an elderly villager who possesses an American Civil War rifle with a purported history of defeating Tibetan soldiers over a century ago. Initially promised to an American gun collector named Ron, guided by Benji, the rifle ends up in the possession of the monk due to a broken deal with the villager.

The physical journey of the firearm from one individual to another drives the narrative forward. Symbolizing the Westernization of the rural landscape, the rifle serves as a focal point for the encroaching changes in Bhutan. Through striking cinematography by Jigme Tenzing, the lush hills of Bhutan remain untouched by the vices of greed and rivalry, yet gradually succumb to the influence of Western constructs like televisions and firearms.

The impending election, triggered by the King's decision to step down, marks a pivotal moment in Bhutan's history, introducing the concept of democracy to its citizens. However, Dorji's astute screenplay raises questions about the necessity of democracy for Bhutan, as none of the villagers actively demand the right to vote. The mock election scene, laden with irony, showcases citizens voting for fictitious color-coded candidates, with yellow winning by an improbable margin due to its association with the King.

Filled with subtle yet impactful moments, the film explores themes of political upheaval and cultural transformation with wit and depth. Dorji's narrative is punctuated with sly and ironic dialogue, highlighting the complexities of Bhutan's encounter with modernity and democracy.

Where Can You Watch The Monk and the Gun?

Through 2024 there will be theatrical releases across Europe, South America, Asia and Australia. From February 16, The Monk and the Gun will have its theatrical releases across Canada. Check out the schedule here.

The Monk and the Gun Trailer


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