By Akie Lin
The Monk and the Gun not only gave me a deeper understanding of the mysterious country of Bhutan but also showcased its beautiful landscapes and kind-hearted people. What struck me the most was how the film explores the conflicts and changes that democracy and modern life brings to this traditionally isolated nation. In the film, I can see that This is Bhutan, and this is how the Bhutanese people are.
The movie begins by taking us back in history to a rural Bhutanese community preparing for their first-ever simulated election on a full moon day. The village welcomes a new television, and everyone gathers around to watch James Bond and drink Coca-Cola while tearing down Buddhist images to replace them with posters of heroes. Radios and TVs are tuned in to receive election news, and everything is proceeding peacefully. However, the Lama suddenly requests two guns for the upcoming full moon night, sparking my curiosity. As the full moon approaches, we follow Ron, an American, and Benji, a local who acts as his guide, as they navigate both the urban and rural landscapes of Bhutan.
Through Ron and Benji’s interactions with the villagers, we see that Bhutanese people prioritize values over money. They take only what they need and are willing to share what they have with those in greater need. The villagers find Ron’s proposed trade price too high. However, what surprises me is that Benji, the guide, always translates the villagers’ words honestly rather than inflating the price to Ron, even though his own wife desperately needs money for medicine. In the end, the villagers disregard the monetary transaction with Ron and exchange seeds with the young monk instead. While this might have seemed foolish, and indeed made many in the audience laugh, it exemplifies a simplicity that is rare and precious today.
The film allows us to see the process of learning “how to respect their choices and self-expressions” and “how to vote in a democracy”.
During the simulated election, the villagers quickly split into red and blue factions. When the father of a young girl chose a different colour, this led to the girl being bullied at school. Although they were not consciously aware of it, their shouting during the process was intense enough to drive an elderly woman away. She believed that this was not what their community used to be like. Additionally, during the simulated voting, the villagers did not know their own birthdates and had to go home to confirm with their families.
In the end, the winner was the colour yellow, which happens to be the colour of the king. This made me ponder whether a country like Bhutan really needs the kind of “democracy” where people are divided by elections, or if their focus on happiness and pursuit of peace may not necessarily require the divisive nature of elections.
The full moon holds significant importance in Buddhist society as it is a day for people to come together, discard negativity, and pray for a brighter future. In the movie, guns are seen as symbols of evil. During the ceremony, everyone discards any guns they have, including a police officer who throws his gun away. Ron watches as the monk throws the gun he had just gotten back into the soil, letting the villagers bury it with stones and mud. Ultimately, he also finds peace and joins the villagers in dancing around the fire at night, accepting a different kind of “gun” – a large red phallic wooden carving symbolizing renewal for the villagers.
I believe the characters in the story represent different facets of the country. There’s the Lama, representing tradition and spiritual beliefs; the young monk, who is curious about Western culture and admires Western heroes like James Bond; the mother in the village, worried about life and family; Ron, the American searching for antique firearms; and Benji, the guide who fluidly moves between modern city life and the countryside. There are also the villagers, some unaware of the concept of elections, some screaming different slogans during the simulated election. This film doesn’t reject the arrival of democracy. Rather, it asks: what does democracy and elections bring to society? Is it progress, or division? Everyone reacts differently to new changes, and this diversity of perspectives is evident throughout the film.
This film review is a translation of the original Chinese by Akie Lin. The Monk and the Gun was screened as part of Vancouver International Film Festival 2023.