Sing Me a Song (France/Germany/Switzerland, 2019)

Sing Me a Song recalls the groundbreaking Up series which followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964 at seven year intervals. That pioneering method of recording social transformation through individual lives has been adopted by Thomas Balmès who here reconnects with Peyangki, a 17-year-old Bhutanese monk who was the focus of his 2013 documentary Happiness. Peyangki lives in Laya, located at 4,000 meters in the Himalayas. It was the last village in Bhutan to receive electricity after King Jigme Wangchuck approved the use of television and Internet throughout the nation in 1999. Sing Me a Song begins with footage of the 8-year-old Peyangki expressing a mixture of excitement and trepidation regarding technological advancement while stating his dream to become a Lama. By the time Balmès returns to Laya, much has changed.

Although he was devoted to his studies as a boy, Peyangki demonstrated a curiosity about the secular world which has now manifested itself in cellphone addiction. From the moment who wakes up (to the sound of the alarm from his device), the teenager is more engaged with the virtual world than the breathtaking natural environment that once have him so much pleasure. In addition to playing games, he is an avid user of the Chinese social media app WeChat through which he has embarked on an online relationship with Ugyen, a young woman who sings him love songs via the voice message function. Ugyen earns a living as a barroom hostess in the capital city of Thimpu and Peyangki has been selling medicinal mushrooms in order to raise the money needed to visit her.

Alternating between the retreat and the increasingly bustling city suggests a comparison between two Bhutanese lifestyles with the candlelit monastery being strikingly juxtaposed with the neon-soaked urban environment. However, Balmès notes how technology has disrupted the serenity of the monastery. There is a close-up of the apprentice monks participating in a prayer, but as the camera pulls out, we see that they are sneakily using their phones, just like many students in classrooms all around the world. Later, they buy toy guns and firecrackers from a regional market to play war games, indicating that first-person shooter sessions have instilled a worryingly casual attitude towards violence. The internet has provided a tantalizing glimpse of the secular world, but they have not received guidance with regards to using it for true betterment, a predicament that gives the documentary a perhaps unanticipated universality.

This is evident in Peyangki’s relationship with Ugyen. Balmès cuts back-and-forth between the digitally connected pair as if making an offbeat romance complete with requisite secrets or fanciful assumptions (she thinks he is a wealthy farmer; he does not know that she has a child). As such, one may expect the documentary’s climax to be their meeting, but it arrives two-thirds of the way through and proves to be anti-climactic instead. Balmès keeps Peyangki in the center of the frame as he turns away from Ugyen, shedding a tear upon realizing that she has kept details from him and unable to handle her gentle teasing that he is smaller than he appeared in his WeChat profile. In their subsequent meeting, they are at opposite sides of frame, barely interacting as they scroll through websites on their cellphones, finding little to talk about in-person. Even after swapping robes for street wear, he is conspicuously out of place at a pulsating disco and spends most of his time in Thimpu immersed in the digital realm.

There is a judgmental element to Sing Me a Song which jars with its observational approach towards a subject at a crossroads in his life, not to mention its wider sense of inevitable national development. Balmès includes two instances of Peyangki being chastised by his teacher for his constant cellphone use while the scenes in which Peyangki plays video games in darkened internet cafés to the accompaniment of Nicolas Rabaeus’s chilly election score echo the dystopian vision of Hao Wu’s live-streaming critique People’s Republic of Desire (2018). Nonetheless, this is a valuable portrait of individual and place. Given the pace of Bhutan’s development and Peyangki’s conflicted nature, the possibility of regular visits is a fascinating prospect.

Sing Me a Song is distributed in the UK by Dogwoof Distribution.