Sundance 2024 Review: “Agent of Happiness” Finds Its Own Way to Contentment

“I wonder why such a sad soul like myself was born in this happy land,” says one of the respondents to a survey about happiness in Bhutan in “Agent of Happiness,” looking around at all the natural majesty around her in the mountains that have largely been untouched by modern civilization. It’s assumed she’s left a number of things out of her official comments to Amber, the survey-taker assigned by the state to collect the thoughts of all the Bhutanese citizens he and a partner can reach in both cities and remote villages for a poll that is said to shape public policy, but filmmakers Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó stand alongside the 17-year-old woman who sees loneliness where others might find solitude, having to take care of both her younger sister and a mother prone to alcoholism after the family’s patriarch has left with any neighbors few and far between in the Himalayas.

The survey ends up not being limited to those on screen when Bhattarai and Zurbó encourage the audience to evaluate their own level of happiness in the warm, engaging doc where it’s unlikely Amber will get accurate results from a staid questionnaire, but there are rewards from the filmmakers daring to dig a little deeper. It seems quite likely that “Agent of Happiness” will be adapted into fiction when its premise is so comically ripe, taking in the introductory meeting where Amber learns to do his job that there is a mathematical formula Bhutan uses to know how happy the country is at any given time, of which the poll numbers are a crucial component. Yet following him out with a camera actually reveals that just as people are naturally inclined to say they’re fine no matter what in casual conversation, the reality of their lives is a bit more complicated than they might jot down. This certainly applies to Amber himself, who at first couldn’t appear any happier on the road, cranking up music to sing along with, but is only in the temporary occupation he’s in because any full-time work would require Bhutanese citizenship, which he lost along with thousands of others during the ethnic cleansing of the native Lhotshampa during the 1990s.

Besides feeling like a stranger in his own country, the lack of citizenship has stymied Amber’s self-confidence and prevented him from pursuing any relationships when his status is uncertain, but still he scrolls through dating sites in his downtime from the job. There’s a potential match in Sarita, a younger woman who looks less for a partner than a way out of the social station she was born into, but their strained courtship is an indicator of how marriage should be viewed as a measure of personal fulfillment if not an accurate assessment of it when Amber’s work takes him to unhappy homes that score well on the survey, from a man with three wives who have reached a place of resignation rather than romance in their relationship to the aforementioned 17-year-old who sees herself as undesirable to potential suitors, coming from no wealth to build a life with.

Bhattarai and Zurbó ably summon the discontent that largely lives under the surface for their subjects and might’ve felt some of their own in trying to decide who to spend time with after the survey starts to fade away as a driving force for the story. The film introduces more narrative strands than it can satisfyingly resolve when doubling back to some of the people Amber polled, and it holds back on getting too explicit about the reasons why so many in Bhutan are without citizenship when there’s genuine tension in whether Amber bringing up his status to Sarita will jeopardize their relationship, yet in being so discrete, the audience is deprived of some much-needed context. However, if “Agents of Happiness” is about anything, it’s disabusing the notion that there is some perfect ideal in any realm and while the film burnishes Bhutan’s reputation as a place to find enlightenment, Bhattarai and Zurbó take a different road than most to reach real epiphanies.

“Agent of Happiness” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20th at Redstone Cinemas 1 at 11 am in Park City and at 4:30 pm at the Megaplex Theatres in Salt Lake City, January 25th at 1:15 pm at the Library Center Theatre in Park City and January 26th at 5:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinemas 6. It will also be available virtually from January 25th-28th.

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