Bhutanese first-time director Tashi Gyeltshen discusses the need to drive forward thinking and women emancipation in his country. His “Red Phallus” succeeds as a filmmaker’s statement, but its overly sleepy narrative might be testing for some caught-off-guard viewers.
Bhutan has only recently become a point on the Asian map of cinema. However, it might be the popularity of this country’s movies in Poland that truly raises an eyebrow.
During the last edition of Five Flavours Festival, which celebrates all kinds of films from Asia, it was the Bhutanese features which scored rooms filled at brims. This year, there was only one – “Red Phallus”.
What attracts so much attention to Bhutanese cinema?
The easiest, and probably right, answer is the mist of mystery surrounding Bhutan. Hidden somewhere in the sky-scraping mountains, this tiny neighbour of Nepal is mostly known for its ridiculously high scores in happiness index surveys.
But if you would judge based on Tashi Gyeltshen’s “Red Phallus”, the reality looks not only bleaker, but there’s hardly any ray of sunshine – even literally, as one of the characters in the film notices.
“Red Phallus” revolves around a 16-year old girl Sangay (Singye), who lives with her sculptor father in a far-flung valley. From the moment she’s introduced to the audience, Sangay’s perceptibly filled with despondency, spending her days in silence. Uninterested in a routine chore ordered by her father, Sangay travels to her aunt in order to hand in a few sculpted phalluses, which are believed to protect a house from malevolent spirits.
However, it’s only the moment Sangay returns from her trip that paints the full picture in “Red Phallus”.
In a dreamy sequence Tashi Gyeltshen shows the girl stalked by a horde of men holding wooden sculptures, like the ones her father manufactures. All of them are dressed in traditional costumes that symbolise evil beings.
By this one sequence, Bhutanese director explains the repressive culture that Sangay lives in. The men, who surround her, are the very demons that keep her chained to sadness and the inferiority complex. These are her father and an alleged boyfriend, who adds insult to Sangay’s injury.
The boyfriend’s profession is a butcher, a job which apparently justifies a backward-thinking attitude, shows no respect for Sangay. The girl is mentally abused with ruthlessness, and left to fight for her future when listening to him making empty promises. Such an oppressor-victim dynamic, though only hinted, fuels the film’s dramatic build-up. Moreover, Gyeltshen emphasises Sangay’s humiliation and her need to break the shackles of the society.
All of this emotional string plays very mild tunes in the visual aesthetic. Gyeltshen prefers to keep the camerawork clean and very static, and the work of his DP (Jigme Tenzing) magnificently bows before Bhutan’s natural beauty. As in the Colombian Oscar candidate “Monos”, the characters seem to exist in a world cut from reality – somewhere in a land with clouds stroking the green fields and steep mountains.
The spotlight of “Red Phallus” casts light on an almost Manichaean clash of tradition and modernity. Living in the rural area of a country that’s still behind the smartphone and internet-era revolution, feels like winding the clock back in time. Sangay’s deprived of her own voice, being trapped in honouring the memory of her deceased mother, but also obligation to live with her father. Gyeltshen hints at the need to move forward, to see the development and forward thinking as positive, as well as much-required changes. In his lenses, tradition’s likely to cause suffering.
Neighbouring China rose to tackle similar issues this year as well. Gyeltshen’s narrative and approach towards women emancipation rings a familiar bell to “Balloon”, directed by Tibet-born Pema Tseden. In both films, the directors find their respective female protagonists as oppressed victims of fossilised societies, which operate within badly-aging ways. These mechanisms, however, need to break like dams under the currents of transformation, propelled by the wider access to knowledge and equalised treatment.
At the bottom of each transformation, however, lies the need to mature and the right mix of circumstances. It’s therefore important that films like “Red Phallus” get screened worldwide, even if not gaining full exposure like their European competitors. The role of Gyeltshen’s film is to foster those changes and cast light on the problems of people whose lives didn’t change for ages. But while tradition needs to be nurtured, the Bhutanese director hints at the practices and ways of thinking that halt any kind of development.
Culturally Hated or Loved?
Overall evaluation: Although this debut by Bhutanese director Tashi Gyeltshen requires patience, it elevates a simple story to a symbolic overview of the country’s rural areas and their hardships.
Red Phallus (2018)
Dir. Tashi Gyeltshen
Hate Grade: 4/10
Where to find “Red Phallus” online? “Red Phallus” isn’t available on either of popular streaming platforms yet. It’s still circulating festivals, so chances are it will be bought and uploaded some time next year.