In 2021, Pawo Choyning Dorji earned a surprise Academy Award nomination for his film Lunana: Yak in the Classroom. His next film, The Monk and the Gun, is much, much better. I would be suspicious of anyone who didn’t like The Monk and the Gun.
In 2005, Bhutan’s beloved king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced that he would abdicate and turn over leadership of the country to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and, at the same time, give the Bhutanese people the gift of democracy, with elections to take place in 2008.
The problem was that the majority of Bhutanese had no idea what an election was. So the government arranged to stage a practice election to teach the population how modern democracy works.
The Monk and the Gun opens with a lama, a Buddhist monk, played by Kelsang Choejey, (a real-life monk), learning on the radio that the leader of the election education project, Tsering Yangden (Pima Zangpo Sherpa), will be coming to the remote village of Ura, near the monk’s monastery, in four days to demonstrate how an election is carried out. The monk calls over his disciple, Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk), and tells him he needs to acquire two guns before the day of the mock election “to make things right.”
This is a difficult task for Tashi, who has never seen a gun and didn’t know that guns even existed in Bhutan.
Meanwhile, an American gun collector, Ron Colman, has heard that a rare rifle from the U.S. Civil War is in Bhutan. Yes, his name is an homage to Ronald Colman, who played the diplomat who discovers the hidden paradise of Shangri-La in the 1937 film Lost Horizon.
With the help of a Bhutanese guide, Colman tracks down the owner of the rifle and offers to pay him $75,000 for it. The old man who owns the gun says that is too much money, so they negotiate a lesser price. But he doesn’t hand it over immediately. Then Tashi arrives and explains that the lama is trying to find a gun. So the owner gives him the rifle as a gift for free.
Colman is horrified. He and his guide waylay Tashi and offer to trade two guns for the one Tashi is carrying back to the lama, since the monk wants two anyway. Tashi says he wants two AK47s because that is the weapon he saw held by James Bond in a poster for Quantum of Solace. Colman tries to talk him out of his choice because AK47s are hard to find and are extremely deadly. However, he has no choice but to pay a large sum to have two AK47s hand-delivered from India.
Meanwhile, preparations for the mock election are going forward. It is here that Dorji’s satiric skills kick into high gear. A local official organizes the citizens into three parties: Red for industrial progress, Blue for Equality and Justice, and Yellow for Preserve the Past. Then he orders them to argue and criticize each other because that’s the way Western elections work. When Langden, the election supervisor, arrives, she is exasperated by this non-Bhutanese exercise. She also has trouble registering the voters because most of the locals don’t know their birthday. Yellow overwhelmingly wins the practice election because yellow is the king’s color.
There are other subplots that are of less interest, but the stories of the monk and the guns and the election come together in a wonderful ending that has an enormous red phallus symbol thrown in.
There is one notable flaw in The Monk and the Gun. Most of the characters are played by villagers who essentially play themselves and are believable. Unfortunately, the character of Ron Colman is played by an American non-actor named Harry Einhorn. His performance is so awkward that it is wince-making just to watch his scenes. Dorji has defended his refusal to hire a real U.S. actor by saying that would become the main story in publicity for the film. But most U.S. actors are not famous enough to garner publicity and, if Dorji includes another American in his future films, he would do well to contact SAG-AFTRA.
It is not easy to make a film in Bhutan. Dorji had to rent camera and lighting equipment in India and then drive it for one week to get to the production site. He has said that his filmmaking mentor and spiritual guide is Khyentse Norbu, writer and director of the popular 1999 Bhutanese film The Cup, which deals with football (soccer) fans trying to convince a head monk to let them install a satellite dish so they can watch the final of the 1998 World Cup between France and Brazil.