(The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs September 7-17 and HtN has tons of coverage coming your way! Check out Matt Delman’s movie review of The Monk and the Gun. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Early on in director Pawo Chorning Dorji’s (Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom) new film about Bhutan in the early aughts, a Lama tells his monk that he needs two guns by the full moon for an act that will change everything. They say if you see a gun in the first act, it’s likely to go off by the third, but Dorji expertly subverts our expectations at every turn. While gun control and gun violence is a theme, the greater existential threat in The Monk and the Gun is democracy. Americans don’t want to believe that democracy is anything less than the gold standard. But in some countries it was not widely accepted by the locals, as recent generations mostly enjoyed a happy and peaceful life under an ambivalent king. Now they are being forced to split into two factions, red and blue, and choose between two hilariously lame candidates. It’s regrettably all too relevant. The fact that Dorji can tell this history lesson with such humor, tension and joy is a testament to his filmmaking prowess.
The king of Bhutan abdicates his reign in 2006 to allow for a nascent democracy to emerge. A wary Lama wants to mark this turning point through a sacred ritual on the full moon, and he instructs his monk to bring him two guns by then, setting a countdown clock for our protagonist. An American gun collector is after the same civil war era gun that the monk now has in his possession. What follows is an immensely enjoyable crowd-pleaser, with vivid moments of humanism sprinkled throughout, and a surprisingly touching finale.
All of the Bhutanese actors and non-actors are terrific in their roles. The only false note may be the one American, played by Harry Einhorn, who looks distractingly like Mark Zuckerberg. (He has no other credits on IMDb). The advent of television brings the villagers together to watch Daniel Craig as 007, or really whatever is on. From James Bond is where our monk clocks the notorious AK-47, which he asks the American gun enthusiast for in a trade for the Civil War relic he’s now brandishing over his shoulder. The American, having second thoughts after obtaining the automatic weapons, remarks to his Bhutanese translator/accomplice, “you know these guns are really dangerous… they’re not going to hurt anybody, are they?” to which he replies, “We live in strange times.” Dorji’s script is consistently moving when it’s not laugh out loud funny.
Some say every story has been told, but this one feels unique, and I can’t imagine any other filmmaker taking it on. Dorji was born in India but he grew up in Bhutan under similar circumstances and brought many personal touches to the story. Though the plot may seem slight on paper, the universal themes explored paired with the vastness of the Bhutanese countryside, open up the story and make it feel grand and even spiritually healing. The Monk and the Gun has been announced as Bhutan’s official selection for the Best International Film Oscar. At the time of this writing it is still seeking distribution.
– Matthew Delman (@ItsTheRealDel)
2023 Toronto Film Festival; Pawo Chorning Dorji; The Monk and the Gun movie review