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The Monk and the Gun


October 28, 2023

Karma Dorji, Travel Programs Coordinator, Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions

A scene from the beautifully shot The Monk and the Gun, Bhutan's official nominee to the 2023 Academy Awards

With thoughtful itineraries honed since 1999, we unveil the depths of Bhutan's happiness philosophy, the daily physical adventures through the beautiful Himalayan landscape complemented by the intimate and in-depth cultural experiences sensitively curated for you every day. 

Through the eyes of a select few informed leaders we saw the dilemmas of a culture: A hitherto sheltered nation discovering the arguments for and against remaining a cloistered society in this 21st Century. I loved the adventure, and I loved the discovery. Unlike anything else I have ever experienced!

Lola W., California 



The Bhutanese star singer-songwriter Misty Terrace in his turn as the titular monk in The Monk and the Gun

Bhutan’s official nominee for the 2023 Oscars, The Monk and the Gun, has been picked up by major international theatrical distributors, including Roadside Attractions in the United States, according to an October 26 report in Variety magazine. 

Following festival premieres at Telluride, Toronto, Rome, and Busan, The Monk and the Gun came home to Bhutan in a premiere event on October 16 attended by a virtual who’s-who of Bhutanese capital society, including the Queen, princes and princesses, and the outgoing democratically-elected Prime Minister, Dr. Lotey Tshering. 

The signature buckwheat fields of central Bhutan provide a lush backdrop for the closing scenes in the Monk and the Gun

Bhutan’s Oscar entry hits the pitch-perfect notes every hopeful international film contestant needs: it’s visually stunning, culturally engaging, and intellectually profound. In short, it’s one of those rare films that lulls viewers with charming cultural asides even as it ambushes them with unexpectedly serious questions about change, modernization, the fundamental nature of social ills, and, ultimately, whether the very idea of democracy is an unmitigated good devoid of its cultural relevancy. 

Stars and fans at the Bhutan premiere of The Monk and the Gun

While I can’t bring myself to agree with all the premises of The Monk and the Gun, one of which seems to be that the democratic endeavor itself is inherently flawed, it drives home some deep cautionary truths about the pitfalls of human nature. Wrapped into the alluring scenes of peaceful Bhutanese rural life filled with a nostalgic innocence—and amusing anecdotes from actual events that took place—are graver hints at the current zeitgeist of pessimism both here in Bhutan and abroad. While watching the film, the mind turns inevitably to the ugly polarization, the coarsening, indeed, the naked aggression and lack of restraint in political life and discourse, especially in the US, arguably the world’s pre-eminent and most successful democracy.

Much of the plot twist in The Monk and the Gun rides on the question of what a monk possibly wants with a gun
A still from The Monk and the Gun

This film seeks to return viewers to the scene of those early societal tensions in Bhutan in the beginning of 2006 when democracy was still in its trial run in Bhutan. Indeed, TMATG works best when revealing—sometimes laughably—how the previously unified Bhutanese people even had to be taught how to separate themselves into three primary color-coded political parties so that they could make a show of an authentic democratic process at work to vaguely-hinted at international observers. Of course, the overwhelming victory in those early "mock elections" goes not to a party with the strongest argument but rather one with the color that has a powerfully significant cultural relevance in Bhutan.

I won’t spoil why guns interest the Buddhist monk and his master, the wise lama. For that, you’ll have to watch the film. All I can say is that the final, entirely satisfying denouement of the movie is a very Bhutanese one. It proves a potent and timely message for an increasingly violent, trigger-happy, and conflict-ridden world, with particular relevance once again to the United States. We can all hope the movie’s unique message resonates in a country with one of the highest gun-related deaths globally. The presence in the narrative of an American antique gun dealer—who spends much of the time on screen nonplussed while obsessed with chasing the gun at the center of the film—may be driving home that point. 

The credit roll of The Monk and the Gun during which the film's talented young director thanked the cast and crew
With the director of The Monk and the Gun, Pawo Choyning Dorji (right)

The image of a Buddhist monk carrying a gun arrests both the eye and the mind. This apparent dichotomy is the narrative hook that draws the audience into the heart of this second feature film from the talented Bhutanese duo of Director-Producer Pawo Choyning Dorji and his Director of Photography—and Cinematography—Jigme Tenzing. The previous offering from the same production team, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, was similarly a surprising tale of modernization’s cost on a human scale, set in the highlands of Lunana in Bhutan. That film also appeared at the Oscars and was later picked up by the major online streaming platform Netflix, an astronomical success by Bhutanese film industry standards. 

Much was said and written about Bhutan’s transition to parliamentary democracy in the years leading up to and following the first democratic elections in Bhutan. Most of those observations came from non-Bhutanese pundits, journalists, and talking heads. By making this feature film, Pawo, Jigme, and their excellent cast and crew have wrested back the narrative of this crucial turning point in our history to a uniquely Bhutanese perspective to reveal what such enormous changes look like from the inside out. 

Promotional poster, The Monk and the Gun

The world is a far richer, kinder place for us all when we each get to tell, see, and hear our own stories reflected to us in ways that feel true to us. By sharing this wise, thoughtful, and thought-provoking story with the world, Pawo, Jigme, and the Monk and the Gun production team empowers not just Bhutanese voices but adds to the intricate tapestry of important global narratives we all need to see and hear. The world needs complexity, not oversimplification; we need the organic, nurturing, and tangential roots and branches of wisdom from all our global traditions spreading outward into the world instead of the one-dimensional, homogenous, linear, market-driven economic narratives being pounded into our collective consciousnesses as if with the virtual battering rams of global mainstream culture. Ultimately, this is why TMATG is a brave, endearing film that deserves every bit of its success. It pleases the eyes, feeds the mind, and puts our lovely corner of the Himalayas squarely on the international film production map.   

A deep dive into the cultural and philosophical resonances of Bhutan’s latest Oscar Awards entry

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