Honeygiver Among the Dogs (Bhutan, 2016)
Dechen Roder’s debut feature Honeygiver Among the Dogs is quite a unique film whose particular charm depends on its blend of seemingly incompatible approaches. Present in the film are enduring elements of neo noir (femme fatale, myths that construct the world and surrounds it with more mystery) but unevenly paced story telling may drive some audience members away. Indeed, Roder has taken a genre that is often affiliated with surface sleekness and given it a contemporary art-house treatment which could prove polarizing.
The narrative follows police detective Kinley (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk) who has been sent to a small village to investigate the disappearance of the abbess from the nunnery. The villagers point to a woman named Choden (Sonam Tashi Choden) who might be responsible. Using leads obtained from the village, Kinley goes undercover and finds Choden, following her to the first lunch stop of the long bus ride, where, to his surprise, she approaches him for help.
After the premise has been established, we observe the dynamics between Kinley and Choden. Kinley, being undercover, is suspicious but quite straightforward. Choden, on the other hand, is openly trusting but often mysterious. These conflicting attitudes help the mysteries of the narrative to unfold while expressing the film’s rich cultural influence.
Rather than balancing these conflicting sides, the film lets one dominate the other. From a procedural point of view, the film shifts towards the mysterious and the magical. It is also interesting to point out that it is first established that Kinley seems to be reporting to a faceless superior who seems to also hold a mystery of their own. Later on, this superior is exposed as some ordinary police chief. This shift outlines how Choden’s character slowly comes to dominate the narrative and that the mystery is not on the side of the police force.
And this is where the experience of formal unevenness becomes fruitful. The moment that the enigma of Choden dominates the film, the seeming unevenness becomes a statement. Kinley’s domination in the narrative as its protagonist, despite his siding with Choden, still conflicts with the reconfiguration of the genre in a feminist direction. It is quite a fortunate turn when Choden’s enigma refuses to be defined by Kinley. And this refusal affects the film form by deliberately slowing down its pace to capture this enigma within a mysterious realm.
But, is this refusal to be defined, to be captured within the narrative, to resist Kinley’s pace, a good thing for the film? This is where Honeygiver Among the Dogs gets polarizing. If judged within the conventions of mystery storytelling, the film delivers. Its murder mystery is gripping and intriguing enough that one wants to see how it will be resolved. It is with regards to the treatment that the film falls short. Excitement is often betrayed by the stillness of the frame. There’s a scene near the resolution which should have been pulsating, but Roder’s single-shot treatment and stiff panning are as mechanical as Kinley’s personality.
The result of the conflicting treatment with the enigmatic effect of Choden’s character begs to question the film’s attempt to reconfigure the noir genre. Roder tries to incorporate a lot of elements native to Bhutan, from women-centric religious practices to issues of land ownership, all of which are cloaked within the riddles of Choden. This constitutes quite a novelty to foreign eyes. To resolve this foreignness, familiar elements of the noir genre have been imported to the narrative. Much depends on whether one judges this film as a genre work or as something novel as Roder’s direction takes the genre and the issues she’s trying to raise with almost equal seriousness. However, the film is only able to accommodate one approach.
Whether one forgives this or not because it is a debut work depends on individual sensibility, but credit is certainly due. Roder is surely one of the more exciting new filmmakers to watch out for. Honeygiver Among the Dogs may not be the best example of incorporating an old genre with politicized content, but the attempt is ambitious enough for one to engage with it.