One of the most surprising Oscar nominations of recent years came in 2019 when Bhutan’s “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” landed the country’s first nom in the Best International Feature Film category. That film’s first-time director, Pawo Choyning Dorji, has now unveiled his second movie, “The Monk and the Gun,” which played at both the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, and in the process suggested that Pawo is not a flash-in-the-pan — instead, he’s a genuine talent at making feel-good movies that are charming without being cloying.
“The Monk and the Gun,” though, is a more mature and more intriguing work than its predecessor. “Lunana,” for all the abundant charm that made it an Oscar surprise, put a gender-swapped, romance-deprived and geographically distant spin on the plots of about half the Hallmark movies in existence: city dweller who’s been living the fast life must go to a small town, where they learn what truly matters and decide to leave the bright lights behind for the simple pleasures. The new film has plenty of culture shock, it’s more intricately constructed while remaining fun from start to finish.
When the film begins, it’s 2006 in the remote mountain country of Bhutan. “The internet has arrived,” titles tell us – but more to the point, the king has abdicated in favor of the country’s first election. But the people need to be taught what an election is and how it works, so government officials are traveling the country holding mock elections in an attempt to get a skeptical public on board.
At a monastery in Ura, in northeastern Bhutan, a lama listens to the news of this on the radio, shakes his head and summons a young monk (a wonderfully deadpan Tandin Wangchuk). The country, he says, has gone wrong. He needs to set it right, and to do that he needs the monk to bring him two guns before the full moon. “Do we have guns in Bhutan?” the monk says.
That’s the setup for a delightfully strange saga. The monk searches for a gun in a country where firearms are scarce, and finds an old American Civil War rifle from a local man. Another local, Benji (Tandin Sonam) is serving as the guide for a Ron (Harry Einhorn), an American collector who’s prepared to pay big money for that rare rifle, but the monk will only give it up in exchange for two AK47s (because of a poster in which Daniel Craig’s James Bond is holding one). The police are very suspicious of Benji and Ron, with good reason considering the lengths to which they’re willing to go to secure that rifle. And the government officials are getting increasingly frustrated over the villagers’ inability to grasp the concept of a free election; when the monk is asked if he knows about the election, he replies, “Is that the new pig disease?”
A winding, tangled parable about modern life coming to a people that don’t understand why they can’t keep doing things the way that’s always worked for them, “The Monk and the Gun” starts with a crazy premise and quietly gets sillier and wilder. But Dorji never loses his light touch, even as you can’t help but wonder what the lama has in mind with those guns.
“You don’t think he’s gonna kill anyone, do you?” Ron asks at one point. “I mean, he’s a monk.”
“I don’t know, man,” says Benji. “These are strange times.”
They are indeed strange times, and they get stranger when the cops arrive at the same time as the election, the lama’s ceremony and a villager carrying a giant red penis statue. Things come to a head in a way that is simultaneously slapstick-y and touching, and entirely in keeping with a movie that has never lost its sense of charm through an hour and a half of twists and turns and engaging mountain escapades.