The Red Phallus (Tashi Gyeltshen, 2018)

Red Phallus poster“I doubt anyone can get out of this paradise” laments an angry man at the centre of Tashi Gyeltshen’s debut feature The Red Phallus. Far from the happiest kingdom, the Bhutan of the Red Phallus is an oppressive place where misogyny and classism rule. Tyrannised by tradition and a conservative culture, the heroine finds herself trapped in an impossible situation, by turns mocked and humiliated because of her father’s “embarrassing” profession, and left with no-one to turn to when misused by the men all around her.

16-year-old Sangay (Tshering Euden) has trouble getting up for school. Unbeknownst to her father (Dorji Gyeltshen), the reason is not so much teenage fatigue and latent rebelliousness, but that the other children are less than kind to her because of his unusual profession – he carves wooden phalluses for a living and puts on a creepy red atsura clown outfit to participate in local festivals. At her age, Sangay should be in year X, but she’s only in year VII because she misses so much school and if she misses much more she’ll be given the rather ironic punishment of suspension. That’s not the only reason she’s in trouble though. The headmaster has also been told she’s been seen going about with Passa (Singye), a married man with two children who’s much older than her, but that’s not the problem. The problem is Passa comes from a family of butchers, which is why it’s so unseemly.

Weirdly, no one seems to be very concerned that a married man of around 30 is hanging round with a 16-year-old girl. When we first meet Passa without knowing his age or background he seems OK, possibly Sangay’s only friend, but he quickly turns nasty when she’s less than keen to take him up on his offer of running away together to the city. She tells him that she’s too young, “just a girl”, and isn’t sure that’s a decision she’s in a position to make. He begins to push her, criticising her for always saying she’s too young or not strong enough. Passa asks her when she’s going to make her own decisions, but Sangay is too clever for him. She’s well aware that by “your own decisions” he only ever means agreeing with him. She’s just made her own decision now when she told him she didn’t want to go, but he doesn’t like it so he tries to browbeat her by undermining her sense of confidence by implying that she’s too stupid to decide for herself while also lacking the courage of her convictions.

Why she’s hanging round with Passa in the first place remains a mystery save a later reference to a traumatic incident he tries to blackmail her with. What’s clear is that she doesn’t see much of a way out for herself through education and has become too afraid or embarrassed to attend school because of her father’s profession. Sangay’s dad is largely a background presence in her life, yelling at her to get out of bed or barking orders from his studio. He doesn’t like it when she takes too long coming home after school, but sends her straight back out again on errands delivering phalluses to customers when he’s too busy to go himself. Sangay is not a fan of the phalluses, and like most of the other children, seems to find them very embarrassing, virtually throwing them at the son of her customer who giggles on seeing her approach with her arms full of oversize wooden fertility ornaments.

Apparently Sangay’s dad is one of the best atsuras in the country, though for reasons perhaps connected to the aforementioned traumatic incident, he’s thinking of retiring. In any case, he’s not much of a protective talisman for his daughter, meekly bowing his head and remaining silent when called in by the headmaster, and later spectacularly failing when he tries to have a word with Passa to explain how deeply inappropriate it is for him to be sniffing round his teenage daughter who is still after all a school girl.

It’s no wonder Passa would like to leave the “paradise” of their small rural community considering he’s the lowest of the low solely because his father was a butcher. Sangay’s headmaster angrily barks at her about a lack of ambition, threatening her that she might end up a butcher’s wife as if that were the worst possible outcome. Even so, Passa – the lowliest of all the men, still thinks he has a natural right to boss and abuse Sangay, emphasising his own masculinity and the lack of it in Sangay’s meek father whose ironic profession it is to carve giant phalluses that are supposed to ward off danger when “phalluses” seem to present nothing but danger and disappointment to young Sangay. When smashing crockery to ease her frustration is no longer enough, Sangay’s rage boils over into something violent and self destructive, her silence giving way to a single scream of infinite impossibility.

The Red Phallus was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Pawo Choyning Dorji, 2019)

Lunana posterBhutan is, apparently, the happiest place on Earth so why would anyone want to leave it? The Gross National Happiness Project does not seem to have touched the hearts of the young in Pawo Choyning Dorji’s first directorial feature Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. Highly Westernised and dreaming of consumerist success, these youngsters have their sights set on overseas, unimpressed with the kind of “happiness” packaged to them at home.

20-something Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is a civil servant serving out his government contract as a teacher while hoping to emigrate to Australia and pursue his dreams of becoming a musician. Ugyen’s conservative grandma may think that a government job is its own kind of success, unable to understand why anyone would want to give it up when so many are striving for just that, but to Ugyen it’s a kind a kind of prison that wants to trap him in a life of dull conventionality. That might be why he’s currently rated among the worst teachers on the payroll with a little more than a year still to run on his term of service. To buck up his ideas, or maybe just as a kind of punishment, the local authority decides that Ugyen should be the one sent up the mountain to Lunana, one of the most remote villages in the country, where they are desperately in need of a new teacher. Ugyen doesn’t really have any choice but to go along with it, hoping that his visa will have come through by the time he gets back which will, after all, only be a few months because the school closes for winter during which the village is cut off by heavy snow.

Lunana is indeed a remote place. You can’t get there by train, or by bus, or even it seems by donkey. From the closet station it’s an eight day walk through rough mountain terrain and city boy Ugyen is not exactly one for hiking. He buys a fancy pair of walking boots, only for his guides to turn up in wellies and forge ahead with steadfast determination, while he ignores their roadside rituals and rolls his eyes at all of this untouched natural beauty. The villagers turn up to great him at a waypoint two hours out from the main settlement so they can all walk back together, and though he remains polite Ugyen cannot hide his resentment on arrival, flatly telling them that the village is even worse than he thought it would be and he wants to turn round and go straight back home.

With only 56 residents and a handful of children, the village runs along ancient rhythms but modernity penetrates even here and the children are enormously excited about the new teacher and how much they are going to learn now that the school will be opening again. Ugyen asks them what they want to be when they grow up and receives some surprising answers – one girl says she wants to be of service to the king, another wants to be a singer, and the lone boy professes that he wants to be a teacher because “teachers touch the future”. Not exactly a deep thinker and somewhat dismissive of his occupation, Ugyen is impressed and chastened by the boy’s answer. Disappointed by the “school’s” primitivism – essentially just an empty stone room, he enlists some of the adult villagers to craft a makeshift blackboard, figuring out how he can replicate chalk with charcoal, and getting a city friend to send some modern equipment such as colourful posters and a new ball for the kids’ improvised basketball court.

Unable to charge his iPod with the temperamental solar power, Ugyen begins to realise that he is in fact living in the world of song where the yak farmers value the ability to sing above all else. One of the village’s pretty young women, Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), is particularly famed for her rendition of a sad folksong about a yak farmer who has to say goodbye his beloved yak when it is decided it has to be sacrificed for the village. While learning how to live the traditional life – starting fires with dried yak dung and singing for the joy of it, Ugyen begins to see the advantages of simplicity. Life in the village is hard, but the people are kind and happy with what they have. Ugyen may not quite be able to let go of his Australian dream, even as he scrawls folksong lyrics over his prized leaflet, but takes something of Lunana with him in his new respect for his roots and the soulful contemplation of the mountains.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)