Review: Village learns about democracy in ‘The Monk and the Gun’

This image released by Roadside Attractions shows Harry Einhorn, from left, Tandin Sonam and Tandin Wangchuk in a scene from "The Monk and the Gun." (Roadside Attractions via AP)
This image released by Roadside Attractions shows Harry Einhorn, from left, Tandin Sonam and Tandin Wangchuk in a scene from "The Monk and the Gun." (Roadside Attractions via AP)

"Why are you teaching us to be so rude?" the elderly village woman asks a Bhutanese election official in "The Monk and the Gun."

It's a question both poignant and biting, because the "teaching" this woman is resisting is something much of the outside world considers a basic human right: the right to vote.

For a piercing refresher lesson on democracy, one wouldn't necessarily think of rural Bhutan as the first place to look. For one thing, democratic elections only came to the tiny, long-isolated Himalayan kingdom in April 2007, when the country held its first mock vote, leading to the real thing late that year and then the first constitution in 2008.

Writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji, whose debut feature, "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom," went all the way to an Oscar nomination, centers his delightful, moving and clever new satire on a moment in 2006 when officials first fan out into the countryside to introduce this concept called "election." TV and internet access are less than a decade old.

It does not go smoothly. "Is that a new pig disease?" asks one villager. Others arrive to register, only to discover they need to know their birthdate. Some do not. They're told they need to leave and go find out. But really, many don't see the point. They have a king. They like him. Why go to all this trouble?

But "The Monk and the Gun," as you may have surmised, is not just about democracy. It's also about guns, and their role in society, a particularly fertile theme for Dorji's brand of wry satire and pointed comparisons.

The casting of the film is fascinating in itself. Most of the cast (including Harry Einhorn, an academic) are making acting debuts here. One, Tandin Wangchuk as Tashi, is a Bhutanese alt-rock star. The villagers in Ura are mostly actual villagers of Ura. The lama is indeed the actual (and only) village lama, Kelsang Choejay.

The director has said he simply hopes his home country -- population about 790,000, known for its beauty and its official imperative of Gross National Happiness-- has something to teach the rest of the world. "It's not who we are," that elderly woman says about the rudeness. It's clear Dorji is hoping we'll be looking at her, then ourselves, and wondering just who we are and want to be.

"The Monk and the Gun," a Roadside Attractions release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association "for some nude sculptures and smoking." Running time: 112 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

photo This image released by Roadside Attractions shows a scene from "The Monk and the Gun." (Roadside Attractions via AP)