At times frustratingly caught between art-house mood piece and ethnographic record, Tashi Gyeltshen’s first feature The Red Phallus nonetheless affords a glimpse of how life in contemporary Bhutan is also hard to define as its inhabitants remain tied to tradition while making the transition to modernity. Centering on the travails of a deeply misunderstood teenage girl, the film foregrounds the issue of patriarchy while providing a regional portrait that often lingers on the rugged beauty of surrounding landscape without shying away from uglier aspects of inescapable everyday experience. As the girl’s older lover sardonically puts it, “I doubt anyone can get out of this paradise.”
16-year-old schoolgirl Sangay (Tshering Euden) lives with her widowed father Ap Atsara (Dorji Gyeltshen) in the valley of Phobjika, close to the Black Mountains of central Bhutan. He makes a living by sculpting phallic, bright red totems which are used to ward off evil spirits and also undertakes the role of a clown-like figure in local ceremonies. However, the respect that his craftsmanship receives from senior villagers does not extend to the local school where Sangay is taunted by her classmates. Arriving early for class one morning, she finds a drawing of an erect penis on the blackboard, and this is presumably not the first instance of such immature humiliation. Sangay is four years behind in her studies and often skips school to instead carry on an affair with married butcher Passa (Singye), whose inherited livelihood puts him at the bottom of the caste system.
Through choice repetitions, notably Ap Atsara chiding his daughter for not waking up in time for school, the film maintains a methodical rhythm that conveys how Sangay’s spirit is being sapped by unfulfilling routine while illustrating how she is pushed towards a tragic tipping point. Gyeltshen’s depiction of men constitute a systematic critique of patriarchal power structure as Sangay is belittled by representatives of various generations and professions. If age gap and married status entail that Passa is obviously not an ideal soulmate, he at least seems to be sensitive to Sangay’s tribulations, only for his masculine entitlement to rear its head when she rebuffs his suggestion of moving to the city. Regardless of his lowly position in the community, Passa still considers Sangay to be subservient to his needs on gender terms, causing their tranquil hillside respite to take a disturbing turn. At home, Ap Atsara is a detached figure, diligently maintaining the role of breadwinner but unable to fill the emotional void left by the passing of his wife. Oblivious to how his daughter is being bullied, he even sends her on errands to deliver phalluses, which only intensifies the taunting. Then, there is the school headmaster (Choten Wangchuk) who disciplines Sangay for her truancy but is more concerned about her relationship with Passa on the basis of social hierarchy than with her poor academic record.
Despite its precise, even painstaking aesthetic, this visually striking film doesn’t always feel fully realized. It’s confidently mounted with Jigme T. Tenzing cinematography capturing the breathtaking landscape and hypnotic cloud formations while shrouding Sangay’s wanderings in a pervading misty greyness. In tandem with excellent sound design by Niraj Gera – the accentuation of valley breeze and crackling fire may give you goose bumps – these images creates an other-worldly sense of alienation and oppression. Framing also keeps characters at a studied distance, not just in the wide exteriors but also during interior scenes wherein actors are kept at a remove from the camera or positioned sideways to limit emotional access in favor of accentuating the overall environment. However, the relationships and class conflicts are underdeveloped with forced expository dialogue breaking the insidiously meditative spell.
Completing a trilogy after Gyeltshen’s shorts Girl with a Red Sky (2011) and The Red Door (2014), the film finds the director making a tentative transition to features. His use of symbolism is hardly subtle (all those totems ironically provide little protection for the heroine) but places him among a growing band of Bhutanese filmmakers unafraid to tackle thorny social issues. The defining sequence comes just fifteen minutes in as Sangay is followed ominously through a field by dozens of masked men who make unsettling cracking noises. Eerie and pointed, it’s a self-contained critique of psychological violence that has the side effect of rendering the remainder of this commendable first feature more grimly inevitable than unerringly compelling.
John Berra is lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15), co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has also contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).