Telluride 2023 Review: “The Monk and the Gun” Aims to Please

Among other talents, Pawo Choyning Dorji has a knack for picking a tantalizing title. After his Oscar-nominated “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” couldn’t help but inspire curiosity, his latest “The Monk and the Gun” is just as likely to pique interest among moviegoers sight unseen as it does for everyone in the Ura village in Bhutan where word travels that its longtime Lama (Kelang Choejey) is in search of a firearm of some type for unknown reasons, but somehow in relation to a ritual to be performed during the full moon four days hence. It’s an unenviable task in a place where most of the populace hasn’t seen a gun – Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk), the Lama’s poor disciple responsible for locating one, certainly hasn’t – but unusual things are happening in Ura these days after the king of Bhutan abdicated his throne after nearly a half-century and the country is preparing to hold democratic elections for the first time in its history, though many would prefer to retain the monarchy.

It’s fascinating to think what would’ve happened if “The Monk and the Gun” had been released closer to the time it’s set – 2006, just two years away from America electing Barack Obama and its place in the world was seen far differently than it is now. As much as the film is about the birth of democracy in Bhutan — and is firmly in its favor, Dorji provocatively considers what the ability to vote has brought to the western world where guns are fetishized and politics can poison otherwise stable families and communities. Although told on an intimate scale, the narrative is quite sprawling, tracking four separate stories beyond the monk’s pursuit of the gun – or rather Tashi’s – as Tsering (Pima Zangpo Sherpa), an election supervisor comes to Ura to oversee a mock election to prep for the real thing; Chephel (Shoeing Jatsho), a villager sees an opportunity to potentially move his family to the city by helping a particular candidate, gradually aggravating his apolitical wife Tshomo (Deki Lhamo) whose mother is supporting someone else, and Benji (Tania Sonam), an urbanite with bills to pay who takes a gig as an interpreter for an American rare gun collector named Ron (Harry Einhorn) who’s learned of a Civil War-era relic in the region.

Maybe it shouldn’t be said when you’d never notice, but Dorji continues to show a deft touch when working with actors who for the most part come from the community they’re portraying and haven’t acted before, let alone appear on camera, and while clearly keeping things relatively simple in what’s asked of them, the film benefits greatly from a real feeling of innocence when it speaks to how any strides towards greater sophistication, there’s an increased capacity for confusion or chaos. It’s how Dorji can get away with the uncomplicated pleasures of applying a gentle layer of slapstick on top of a serious political allegory, watching as Tashi elude Benji and Ron with the prized weapon in a sequence that would make Charlie Chaplin envious, and conveys so strongly what would be lost if Bhutan gave up all of its old traditions in acceding to the demands of modern world. Perhaps “The Monk and the Gun” may tell of a time when Bhutan sought lessons from the rest of the world on how to become a stronger nation, but it has plenty to say now about other nations attempting to preserve their democratic values and more than disarming enough to cut through the noise.

“The Monk and the Gun” will screen again at the Telluride Film Festival on September 3rd at 9:15 am at the Nugget Theater and will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9th at 2:45 pm at the Scotiabank 3 and September 10th at 12:35 pm at the Scotiabank 14.

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