de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

Bhutan’s young genius filmmaker, Pawo Choyning Dorji, progresses as a filmmaker with The Monk and the Gun, a satirical, alluring, spiritual, and divine film that contemplates the power of democracy, human progress, and tranquility. Set in 2008 in Bhutan, right when the monarchy lifted its restrictions on television, the internet, and aired movies. The broadcast begins to announce that they are going to transition into a democracy where people in villages across the nation will have the right to vote.

Audiences who might be familiar with Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and.. Spring (2004) will recall that film, especially since we rarely get films in the United States about Buddhist monks. The film is also reminiscent of other satirical movies about guns, like Lord of War and War Dogs, but not as over-the-top, a little less biting, and more restrained in its approach. What distinguishes The Monk and the Gun from other political satires is that it doesn’t try so hard with its aggressive approach just to be amusing, as the film balances its delicacy with wisdom along with mostly nuanced characters.

The Monk And The Gun - Now Showing

Courtesy Roadside Attractions

The film’s title is an ironic one that delivers quite a thoughtful and noble payoff that felt liberating in both theme and tone. Clocking in at just under 110 minutes, The Monk and a Gun works mostly as a Robert Altman-style ensemble piece that is breezy with its swift pace and engrossing storytelling. Ultimately, the film becomes more than its title suggests, as it could also be titled A Nation with a Democracy. Like an Altman film, it focuses on different parallels and supporting actors that are interwoven together in a satisfying conclusion.

In the opening act, we see the small village of Ura coming together from various ages to learn about democracy and how to vote in the coming mock elections. We are met with local villager Cheophel (Choeying Jatsho), who embraces this new dawn of modernity, and a neighbor embraces a new widescreen TV they just received in the village. Meanwhile, you can sense Cheophel is ashamed of his larger television, as he still feels disconnected from the modern world that he so eagerly wants to be a part of. Choesphel’s wife, Tsohomo (Dek Lhamo), on the other hand, feels the polar opposite of her husband. Actually, most of the village prefers to go back to how things were under a monarch, as they see the early stages of democracy as leading to division and disagreements amongst their neighbors. We see a team of government officials led by an election’s official, Tshering (Pema Zangmo Sherpa), who is in the village setting up a mock election of three different parties where the citizens seem to prefer the “preservation party” the most. This isn’t so much to preserve the past, but because, in Buton, yellow is the color the king often wears.

The Monk and the Gun now showing in limited theaters.

Courtesy Roadside Attractions

We’re also introduced to the village’s elderly lama (Kelsang Choejay). He is a man of wisdom, but he seems alarmed by the sudden changes that Bhutan’s king will be making. He requests that his younger disciple, Tashi (Tandin Wangchuck), help him find a pair of guns for a Buddhist ritual that will occur in a few days. This subplot involving the older Lama and Tashi are the elements that recall Kim-Ki Duk’s Spring Summer the most, and their scenes up to the climax feel just as transcendental. As Tashi goes out looking for a gun, he finds him stopping in at the local convenience store, where the clerk watches Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace in awe of the James Bond spectacle, action, and use of an AK-47.

This leads to the satire and ideas in the next subplot involving an insensible and wealthy American named Ron Coleman (Harry Enhorn) and his tour guide and translator Benji (Tandim Sonam), who are in search of an ancient rifle that was used in the American Civil War that found its way to the Duar War in 1865 and killed many Tibetans. The gun is to be arranged and purchased from a local monk who is very modest. Ron offers nearly 100 thousand dollars for the antique rifle, but they reach a deal with a more modest amount. Ron and Benji must go into the city and make a transfer, and they agree to meet the following day.

This ends up sending Ron and Tashin on a fool’s errand once they discover the gun was given to Tashi as a favor for the elderly lama to use for his ritual. This set-up also allows for some very amusing exchanges between Ron and Benji that highlight the cultural differences between America and Bhutan. As America has been the beacon for freedom, liberty, and a constitutional republic-democracy around the world that has inspired many nations to progress out of autocracies and tyrannical governments into democratic ones, America’s own undoing has also led to a lot of gun violence, and The Monk and the Gun runs with that commentary.

The Monk and the Gun (2023) is a timeless satire.

Courtesy Roadside Attractions

The Monk and the Gun marks the sophomore film by Pawo Choyning Dorji, just after his debut feature Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom earned him an Oscar nomination for Best International Film in 2019. His latest deserves to be compared to the works of Robert Altman, who also ran his dizzying satire with absurdity, lunacy, and sincerity. Like Altman, there is something about the intimacy on display in this film that ignites. It is essentially the type of satire that I hoped the forgettable The Greatest Beer Run Ever would have been. It’s rewarding to see a satire like this still being helmed. While not quite as biting as Altman’s, it’s still a very intimate look at the power of democracy, peace, and unity. With that, The Monk and the Gun is a first-class film.

THE MONK AND THE GUN opens in limited theaters Friday, February 9th