“The Monk and the Gun,” a modestly scaled, lightly comic and blithely ingratiating tale set in Bhutan takes place in the recent past, when the country held mock elections.
In 2005, the Bhutanese monarch announced that he was stepping down in 2008, a move that helped clear the way for the country’s transformation to a democracy. While the abdication went smoothly by all accounts, the mock elections — a nationwide practice run for parliamentary voting to come — are disturbing the citizenry in this fictional movie, a smooth piece of work with grand landscapes, nonprofessional actors, toothless politics and a story as contrived as just about anything you’d find at your local multiplex (or at Sundance).
There are two monks in the movie, and several more guns than the title indicates. One monk is a wizened, unnamed lama (Kelsang Choejey, an actual lama), with a wispy white beard who spends his days meditating in a temple and is given to gnomic comments. One day, he orders his disciple, a sturdily built young monk, Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk), to procure two guns. “I need them by full moon,” the older lama says, adding that they will allow him to set things right. He doesn’t explain what exactly he means by that; largely, it seems so that his instructions can give the story a touch of mystery as Tashi sets off on his feature-length quest.
That journey is at once literal and metaphoric, sluggishly paced and filled with pretty scenery. It brings Tashi in contact with other characters, including some with separate plotlines that function like little discrete stories and eventually converge. Among the more vibrant ones is a young city dweller with a sick wife and money problems, Benji (Tandin Sonam), who’s trying to broker a deal with an American gun buyer, waggishly named Ronald Coleman (Harry Einhorn). A different Ronald Colman starred in Frank Capra’s 1937 adventure “Lost Horizon,” an Orientalist fantasy about a diplomat who crash-lands in the Himalayas, finds Shangri-La and meets a high lama played by the American actor Sam Jaffe.
The gun dealer’s name is a winking detail, if one that probably works best for movie critics of a certain age (ahem). The West’s fetishization and exploitation of countries like Bhutan — regularly described as the world’s last Shangri-La — informs the movie ever so gently. To that end, the American character is stupid and predictably greedy, which allows the writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji (“A Yak in the Classroom”) to take a few pokes at the United States. However sincere and justified, the digs are so innocuous that their main purpose seems to flatter Western viewers who will nod along as they coo at the landscapes and chuckle knowingly about ugly truths they think have nothing to do with them, but do.
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