Oh temptress smart phone, is there nothing you can’t ruin, given half a chance?
Globe-trotting filmmaker Thomas Balmès has been filming in the Himalayas, Bhutan and other high plateaus of Asia since “Babies” (2010). But with “Happiness,” he found a a subject worth exploring in depth over a couple of documentaries. That 2013 film, which focused on the first “opening up” of remote, isolated Bhutan to TV and electronic connection to the world, paves the way for his latest, about how the Internet is changing this legendarily scenic and devoutly religious part of the world.
“Sing Me a Song” follows Peyangki, a very young sāmaṇera (novice Buddhist monk) when we meet him. Balmès meets him at age eight, a contemplative child who claims to have preferred the monastery and a monastic future to “regular school” and life picking medicinal mushrooms with his mother.
And then we see a cell tower going up. “Ten years later,” you can guess a lot of what’s changed about Peyangki, but there’s even more you can’t.
Young sāmaṇera recite prayers in unison at what seems a more manic than spirutual pace. Almost to a one, they’re on their phones as they do — texting, playing games. It’s a jaw-dropping moment.
Whatever one thinks of the tranquility that looks a lot like boredom in eight year-old Peyangki lying on a mountainside regarding the flowers, the cell-phone transformation of him and the monastery is simply shocking.
“Any type of song,” he purrs, in Dzongkha with English subtitles, “as long as it’s a LOVE song.”
The teen monks are girl-crazy, swapping messages and calls with city girls on the WeChat app. That’s where the film gets its title, teen Pegangki requesting a song from a new online hook-up.
He and his peers are slacking off, neglecting their studies, claiming “Maybe I’m just not intelligent” enough to memorize the stanzas and stanzas of prayers, the ritual dances (“Stop looking at your feet!”).
He catches up with his mother, admitting he “didn’t learn very much.” But with a camera crew there, she doesn’t show alarm.
“If you commit to religion and get enlightenment, I will be happy!”
Pressure? A little. Maybe.
A trip with the novices into town is even more rattling. They blow their cash on game cafes to gorge on first-person-shooter video games, and street markets where they buy toy guns to play “war” with back at the monastery.
Say what now?
It brings to mind assorted Monty Python “nuns making mayhem” sketches, this shaved-head mob in red robes wandering city streets, window-shopping and ogling girls.
And then Peyangki tracks down Ugyen, the fetching young woman he’s been sweet-talking for weeks, maybe months. As we’ve seen her putting on makeup with her friends, discussing their life options, curious about work in Kuwait or how much a mushroom picker from the village of Laya could earn, she and her friends scroll through screens of pricy purses and designer shoes on their smart phones.
Sure, young man meets young woman on the Internet is a tale as old as Al Gore. But how does any of this jibe with a monastic life?
And as Peyangki gets gentle scoldings over his childish passions, hearing that “guns will never benefit you,” we wonder how much further he can go wrong and just how wrong you have to go before they kick you out.
Twenty years ago, the screen comedy “The Cup” captured something of this stereotype-shattering culture shock — Tibetan monks mad for the World Cup, hellbent on getting access to a TV so they could watch it. “Sing Me a Song” lets us consider how fast the world has changed since then, even mimicking that movie with a scene where the young and younger monks gather to watch a match. Half of them can’t look up from their phones long enough to take in Ronaldo’s performance.
The awkwardness of the immature, cloistered young man meeting the young woman — who has a child, he finds out (AFTER we do) — with an agenda and needs of her own is almost painful to watch.
Scenes like that, the myriad of camera angles showing a little boy hiking up a hillside and terribly intimate moments caught on camera make one wonder if there’s some “staging” going on here, if this is another documentary that is flirting with “docudrama” status.
Not that we don’t believe every single thing we see in “Sing Me a Song.” And even if we see “trouble” the minute we spy that first phone, we don’t necessarily guess how this fascinating “speed of change” story will play out.
MPA Rating: unrated, adult situation
Cast: Peyangki, Ugyen
Credits: Directed by Thomas Balmès. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:41