Much of US history has been spent under the influence of the optimistic belief that our way was the best way, and that sooner or later dragons would inevitably be slain (we’re looking at you, Communism!!), permitting democracy to engulf the globe like a warm Vitabath. There’s always been pushback to that in some quarters, of course. But now we’re in the horror-movie situation where the pushback is coming from inside the house. Various forms of authoritarianism and economic neo-feudalism are unmistakably on the rise. Have pro-democracy movements peaked, and are the systems they advocate on a gradual but irreversible wane worldwide? Well, we shall see—like it or not.
Those questions bring a strange novelty to The Monk and the Gun, because it’s about something that might’ve played as a routine inspirational hook not long ago: The arrival of democratic policies in a nation, Bhutan, hitherto pretty much void of citizen participation in governance. This latest by writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji (whose prior Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom we reviewed here) is set in 2006, when King Jigme Singey Wangchuck abdicated in part to encourage modernization in all things, political structure inclusive.
TV reception and the internet have only just arrived in the remote mountain community where this tale is set. Still more flummoxing to its residents is the idea that now they are expected to vote, in elections. These are things they have no experience in, and which indeed many find irksome, having always had such decisions made for them on high. Ergo, a national program is orchestrated to hold mock elections, providing introductory “practice” for the eventual real thing. Politics all too soon rears its frequently ugly head, however, dividing families and setting neighbors at odds as candidates start campaigning aggressively, many in the dishonest hard-sell manner we get in our own well-worn democracies.
Among several plot threads in this ensemble seriocomedy, a principal one involves an esteemed Buddhist lama (Kelsang Choejey) whose response to these momentous changes is to ask his faithful assistant (Tandin Wangchuk) to find him a gun, or two. That is not a simple request, as such weaponry is strictly regulated and scarce hereabouts—the assistant Tandi has never even seen a gun. Why would a monk need one, anyway? Regardless, a quest begins.
Simultaneously, an American antiques trader (Harry Einhorn) and his local guide (Tandin Sonam) have made the miraculous discovery that an ultra-rare rifle dating from the Civil War era about 150 years prior has somehow ended up in an area farmer’s hands. He has little use for it, and is happy enough to sell it off, even refusing to accept the full whopping sum offered. But then Tashi also lays claim to the weapon on behalf of his master, oblivious to its collector’s value.
The resulting comedy of errors is a bit reminiscent of vintage import hit The Gods Must Be Crazy, in hinging on the incongruity of the modern world thrusting itself into a sphere where it seems irrelevant—with the titular gun equivalent to the desert bushman’s Coca-Cola bottle. But there’s no wacky slapstick in this comparatively low-key, pastoral tale, whose gentle humanism is more akin to something like The Band’s Visit.
This pleasing, leisurely parable set against spectacular scenic backdrops wears its cleverness lightly, so that you’re a little taken aback by the ingeniousness of the resolution. Which manages to ridicule American gun-craziness, honor democracy’s arrival, and involve a giant ceremonial penis—all in a balming spirit of evolved Buddhist serenity. A quiet but certain crowdpleaser, The Monk and the Buddhist opens Fri/9 at SF’s Kabuki 8 and the Smith Rafael Film Center in Marin.
Far from the as-yet fairly peaceful isolation of Bhutan lies Disco Boy. Its protagonists are very much at the mercy of European borders, hostility towards immigrants, and remaining imperialistic impulses towards the Third World. Belarusian youth Alexei (Franz Rogowski) and Mikhail (Michal Balicki) slip away from their soccer-team tour bus after crossing into Poland, determined to make it to France. But their lark comes to a catastrophic premature end. Alexei finds himself alone in a strange land; apparently his only options are being deported homeward or training for the Foreign Legion. If he’s accepted to the latter, he will be on a path to legal French residency, and eventual citizenship.
Giacomo Abbruzzese’s first narrative feature then swerves from boot-camp to the Niger Delta. There, rural residents including siblings Jomo (Morr Ndiaye) and Udoka (Laetitia Ky) are in armed guerrilla warfare against the government, multinational industries, and foreign agents despoiling their ancestral lands for profit. Alex finds himself ordered to serve here, protecting oil company interests at the expense of locals. Eventually he finds himself haunted by the ghosts of those whose deaths he’s been involved in, none willingly.
Disco Boy’s unpredictable, serpentine narrative loses some intensity in its last lap or two, arriving at a fadeout at once contrived and unsatisfying. I never knew what Abbruzzese was aiming for with his mysterious running thread of transformative heterochromia (i.e. when one eye is differently colored from the other). Nonetheless, this is often a knockout of a debut feature, its vivid, confident gambits embracing everything from infrared photography and three distinct dance sequences to a squadron of soldiers singing “Non, je ne regrette rien.”
The director’s bold aesthetic choices never feel superfluous, even if they don’t necessarily add up to a cohesive statement. He’s also gotten fine work from Rogowsky, a personal favorite who was disappointingly over-the-top in his last couple films; here, not for the first time, he is at his best in a near-mute role. Disco Boy is imperfect, but so frequently striking that it rates as a must-see. It opens Fri/9 at SF’s Opera Plaza Cinemas.
Is it enough for an arthouse movie to be pretty? That will be the question dividing friends and foes of The Peasants, based on a classic of early 20th-century Polish literature by 1924 Nobel Prize winner Wladyslaw Reymont. I haven’t read the book, but we’re in territory here that won’t be entirely unfamiliar to readers of Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, et al.
Jagna (Kamila Urzedowka) is a doe-eyed lass in a backwards farming village. Her beauty inflames everyone—the men lust after her and call her “whore” when spurned, the women call her “whore” just cuz—but her options are sorely limited. She is married off to a rich, boorish, widowed landowner (Miroslaw Baka), but continues to burn with passion for strapping Antek (Robert Gulaczyk), who seconds that emotion. Unfortunately, he’s also married… and her much-older husband’s son.
There’s a lot of yelling and crying and shunning in this rustic soap opera, none of whose protagonists are very sympathetic as depicted. The Peasants needed a more nuanced, less head-on treatment to put across its load of chest-thumping retro melodrama. But directors DK and Hugh Welchman, a professional as well as marital duo, aren’t much interested in subtleties of character or storytelling. Instead, these animators’ near-exclusive focus is on visuals, which here take the form of live actors rotoscoped, then literally painted over to resemble 19th-century Polish oil paintings.
Their prior feature Loving Vincent was also weakest in its narrative elements—but the application of Van Gogh’s unique aesthetic to moving pictures so arresting, you could simply wallow in the stunning color imagery and ignore everything else. The more naturalistic school of landscape and portraiture painting that provides a model here is conventionally representational by contrast.
So The Peasants becomes like one of those Classics Illustrated comic books of yore—nice graphics facilitating a rote dumbed-down condensation of famous literature. The effect doesn’t heighten the source material’s impact, instead simplifying and prettifying it, making histrionic cliches feel yea hoarier. The Welchmans’ technique may simply be misapplied here, but after these plodding two hours, I’d be happy never to suffer it again. It also opens this Fri/9 at the Opera Plaza, and next week at Rafael Film Center.