The visually poetic observational and non-fiction film “Sing Me a Song” follows a young Bhutanese monk named Peyangki as he personally experiences digital disruption. Constructed more like a coming-of-age drama than a documentary, it tells a compelling story of romantic melancholy played out against the peaceful, meditative backdrop of the Himalayas.
A sequel to the 2014 film “Happiness” by director Thomas Balmès (available for free online on PBS), which chronicles the boy’s initiation into a monastery and his family’s pursuit of his first television after the arrival of electricity in the remote village of Laya, the highest settlement in Bhutan, “Sing Me a Song” continues the saga with more focused narrative motivation than its predecessor.
We first meet Peyangki as the cheerful, free-spirited 8-year-old boy we saw at the end of “Happiness,” running, jumping and singing softly as he makes a wreath of flowers. He tells the camera that he hopes to become a llama and shares his excitement about seeing airplanes and tall buildings one day. He tells the apocryphal story of his father’s death from a heart attack upon meeting a bear on Peyangki’s day of birth.
Fast forward 10 years and Peyangki lives in a nearby monastery, woken up every morning by the alarm on his now ubiquitous cell phone, electricity having brought the internet to Laya. Even during their morning prayers, the young monks are as inseparable from their devices as any teenager – texting, gaming, and watching videos – but Peyangki is especially in love.
Peyangki struggles with his studies and worries about not being smart enough to learn, oblivious to practical concerns and the lack of true spiritual calling. His only comfort? Listen to love songs on the WeChat app on his phone. Online, he meets a bar singer named Ugyen who lives in the capital city of Thimphu (a veritable metropolis of over 100,000 people), and the two engage in a temporary relationship – though neither is entirely in the know. listening to the other.
Balmès cleverly moves between the two youngsters, without comment or judgment, as they navigate between early adulthood, the limits of their environment, and the vastness of the world that rests in the palms of their hands. Even with the low-key nature of the subjects, it’s a genuinely compelling story as we wait and see what happens when these worlds collide.
A brief meditation
The film works ethnographically as well. By continuing Peyangki’s reluctant existence as a monk, Balmès intimately bears witness to a tottering person on the verge of monastic life. It’s a tough road, but the film has a more whimsical side to it as well, including an apparent scream at Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu’s charming 1999 film “The Cup”. Balmes’s juxtaposition of a difficult rural life and an urban life where anything can be commodified – even dreams – presents a captivating portal to a less familiar culture.
Ultimately, on things more important than the impact of technology, “Sing Me a Song” inevitably takes us back to an assessment of the title of the previous film: What is “Happiness”? With 2020 in our collective rearview mirror and the tentative promise of 2021 upon us, you could do worse than start the new year with this brief meditation.