Director: Thomas Balmès (France, Germany, Switzerland). Year of Release: 2021
We first meet Peyangki when he is an awkward 8-year old. Inarticulate, looking away from the camera he explains how he is destined to become a monk, maybe a lama. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to react, but I was highly saddened that this young boy who seemed barely aware of his own desires has had his life mapped out with him so early.
Flash forward 10 years, and Peyangki is indeed at monk school. We see shots of a group of young men praying, and then the camera pans down to show their hands all playing with mobile phones. We see a room of computers full of young monks sitting side by side not looking at each other, instead staring into the screens in which they are blowing each other’s avatars to bits.
As the film continues, Peyanki goes to the big city to meet Ugyen, a young woman who he met on WeChat. I say young – she’s a lot older than he was expecting, and has a child that she never mentioned before. He is also not the rich farmer she was expecting. The pair sit opposite each other staring into their phones and avoiding eye contact.
Peyanki considers leaving the monkhood for Uygen, but one day when he tries to visit her, she has disappeared for a job in Kuwait. We are not told what the job is, but we can fear the worst. Even in Bhutan, she’s a hostess in a karaoke bar – at their first WeChat meetings she sings for him, hence the film’s title. We are left to guess what “hostesses” are expected to do.
Bhutan was the last ever country to have television and the Internet, but within 5 years one tenth of the population had a facebook account. This is something that Sing me a Song seems to regret deeply. It would much rather that young monks remain mystical. I have the feeling that a deep orientalism is at play – a Western director wishing that young people in East Asia meet his wish for a spiritual but non-threatening society of noble savages.
For all the glorification of the spiritual life, the job of a monk appears to be very boring, full of endless worship of a God who is vain and extremely insecure. The young students repeat by rote pages of verse acclaiming His greatness, and give the impression that if they stop telling Him how wonderful He is, He’ll take offence. This is less about the humility of man than it is pandering to the self-image of a deity who needs someone to stand up and tell Him he’s not all that.
The implicit message of the film is that social media is ruining Bhutanese society, but again it suffers from the Orientalist gaze. The young monks are infantilized as people who presumably “we” must protect. You also get the feeling that the only scenes that we see are those which have been chosen by the director. Is it really only teenage monks in scarlet robes who frequent the local Internet cafés?
Ultimately, the monastery sends one of Peyanki’s friends to the city to try and win him back. He explains that he’s not sure that he’s really cut out for the spiritual life and his “too far from the Buddha now”. At the same time he doesn’t really seem to have any clear ideas about what he should do. This is the tragedy of Sing me a Song – for all the glorification of the noble native life, you don’t get the sense that the young monks get much job satisfaction.
Ultimately where the film didn’t really work for me is that it’s a story of the lives of young adolescent boys, and I just don’t find young adolescent boys that interesting. This is not about where they live or whether they spend too much time on their phones. Nothing much that they say is that interesting. A film about similar people in Basildon would have been just as boring.
We do see some glorious scenery, however. Bhutan, and Peyanki’s home village of Laya are beautiful, on the edge of the Himalayas in rolling countryside. If you get sick of the dragging moralism asking why the kids of today can’t be just happy with wooden toys and a clip round the ear, you can just look behind them at the magnificent landscape.
Summary; I’m not convinced by Sing Me a Song’s main message and implicit technophobia, but there’s enough here to catch our interest. The qualities of the film are generally despite itself. Nothing special, but still of some interest.