Bhutanese director Tashi Gyeltshen’s debut charts the anguish of a high-school student as she’s caught between her sculptor father, her married boyfriend and her own confusion about her rural existence.
Visually striking and remarkably symbolic, The Red Phallus is a film hard to overlook, and not just because of its startling title. Employing enchanting imagery to move his slow-burning narrative forward, director Tashi Gyeltshen’s assured first feature adds to Bhutan’s steadily growing body of cinematic work. Co-produced by the Berlin-based Swiss filmmaker Kristina Konrad and Nepalese director Ram Krishna Pokharel, the film won the Fipresci award at Busan and should follow Khyentse Norbu’s Hema Hema, Sing Me A Song While I Wait and Dechen Roder’s Honeygiver Among the Dogs in carving out a niche on the festival circuit.
A key scene establishing the film’s tone occurs some 15 minutes into the story, when schoolgirl Sangay (Tshering Euden) is walking through ominous gray-green fields, stalked by a horde of masked men in crimson clothes. Wielding the wooden phalluses she has just delivered to a neighbor for her sculptor father (Dorji Gyeltshen), these villains create intimidating cracking noises, a cacophony that clearly suggests the angst of a young woman struggling against gender oppression on a daily basis.
Gyeltshen’s scathing critique of rural patriarchy shares certain similarities to Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya’s award-winning festival hit Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. Just like the latter, The Red Phallus charts a woman’s meltdown within a social system dominated by repressive men. Here, Sangay has to contend with the demands of her widowed father, who seems blissfully unaware of the woes of being the daughter of a man who ekes out a living producing phallic totems. As the film begins, she walks into her classroom only to see the drawing of an erect penis on the blackboard, perhaps one of many instances in which her classmates mock her.
But Sangay’s furious reaction to the drawing also stems from her frustrating, illicit affair with Passa (Singye), a married epileptic who happens to be a butcher, a job deemed the lowest of the low in the village. Even this social outcast gets to order her around, and he derides her for being an impassive ignoramus. This is despite the fact he has failed miserably to live up to his promise to her to leave his family and make a fresh start.
Throughout the first half of the film, Sangay is constantly harassed by men — her father, her lover, the school principal — for not trying harder in life and for using “I’m not strong enough” as an excuse. Perhaps inevitably, she eventually fights back, releasing her pent-up emotions through violence and bloodshed. Gyeltshen’s screenplay provides a vivid illustration of this slow descent into madness and Euden’s turn as the young woman is controlled but fierce, a performance oozing fury at every turn.
Just as importantly, Gyeltshen never resorts to cultural exoticism to make his point. The conflict between tradition and modernity is hinted at rather than directly stated. The characters’ gritty rural lives, similar to those in many other countries, unfold amid Bhutan’s scenic landscapes shot by D.P. Jigme T. Tenzing with sturdy, unflamboyant camerawork. Poetic in appearance and earthbound in its observations about social problems in a far-flung land, The Red Phallus is a taut and gripping debut.
Production companies: Studio 108
Cast: Tshering Euden, Singye Singye, Dorji Gyeltshen
Director-screenwriter: Tashi Gyeltshen
Producers: Tashi Gyeltshen, Kristine Konrad, Ram Krishna Pokharel
Director of photography: Jigme T. Tenzing
Production designer: Karma Tenzine
Music: Frances-Marie Uitti, Jigme Drukpa
Editing: Saman Alvitigala
Sales: Asian Shadows