Eight-year-old Peyangki lives in Bhutan, in one of the of the remotest villages in the world. As he trains diligently to become a Buddhist monk, the imminent arrival of electricity in the village and a proper road to the city promises progress and anxiety in equal measure.
Ten years later, Peyangki is now eighteen and electricity has arrived, bringing with it the connection and distraction of smartphones. Much of this documentary sequel to to Thomas Balmès’ 2013 film Happiness is beautiful and humane, but is more often simplistic and questionable in its exploration of the impact of technology on a traditional society.
There’s no question that Balmès’ film is at once gorgeous and haunting, capturing both the sublimity of the Bhutanese mountain ranges and the grimy neon of its cities with equal force. The way he connects the people to their landscape is visceral: the fabric of Peyangki’s robes is positively tactile, while the wind that whips through his villagers tells of generations of lives lived hard with the landscape. Sing Me a Song is at its best as an aesthetic experience over a straightforward factual one.
But therein lies its problem. So enamoured is Balmès’ film in the sublime purity of this village untouched by western progress that it indulges in questionable tropes that have their roots in Orientalist and noble-savage discourses. The first shot after the ten-year time jump starts on one young monk praying, slowly pulling back on a line of them, all of whom are singing while simultaneously glued to their phones. Variations on this shot are repeated throughout the film, usually accompanied with sinister music. Accordingly, Sing Me a Song’s engagement with the arrival of electronic communication in the monks’ lives rarely rises above the level of moralistic hand-wringing.
Sing Me a Song revels in the untouched beauty of Peyangki’s village and laments its corruption by western models of progress. But it misses the irony that its lamentation derives, too, from western assumptions about the mysticism of the far east. Nevertheless, its moments of emotional authenticity, though wedged in between the film’s pearl-clutching, do retrieve Sing Me a Song from exclusive stereotyping.
The main thread in the latter half of the film has Peyangki pursue a girl living in the capital of Thimphu at the expense of his studies, only to find when he gets there that all is not as promised. His quiet devastation as he sits sulkily beside her is recognisable to anyone who remembers having their adolescent heart broken, as is the brutal realisation that he really has ballsed things up quite spectacularly. In these moments, Sing Me a Song effortlessly captures the common humanity of life’s mundane experiences.
It’s such a shame, then, that it just as effortlessly undoes its own observations by not understanding Peyangki’s troubles as a complex person in a specific cultural context. Instead, Sing Me a Song transforms him into an avatar for us as westerners to transpose our anxieties about the influence of phones and violent video games on our own lives.