Documentarian Thomas Balmès was handed a gift when he made “Happiness.” That 2013 documentary, about the rapid development of Bhutan seen through the eyes of an 8-year-old monk, begat the idea for a followup feature in the form of “Sing Me A Song.” This sequel spotlights that same child 10 years later, now a young adult and the product of technological advancements, wrestling with the decision to abandon his spiritual calling for secular, earthly values. While more than an hour and a half seems like a long time to make the simplistic statement that the internet is bad, Balmès has greater profundity in mind when disseminating astute observations about how modern necessities and communicative devices impact cultures and ecosystems.
Balmès latest film opens on clips from his previous documentary to establish what life was like prior to modern interferences. Boy-monk Peyangki embodied adorable innocence and purity before roads were carved into the steep mountains leading to Laya, a small, untouched Bhutanese village nestled in the Himalayas. Before the advent of electricity, television and the internet reached their town, the precocious young monk — whom some swore was “a lama reincarnated” — spent his idyllic days following his bliss, learning Buddhist prayers and frolicking in the pink-flowered fields as birds sung their songs. He clearly had a natural curiosity for the world outside, but was intently focused on the discipline it takes to become a lama as an adult.
Fast-forward 10 years to our protagonist as an 18-year-old, and the contrast is shocking. No longer is Peyangki as devoted to his studies as he once was, nor does it appear that his childhood sense of jovial whimsy has remained intact. He spends much of his free time on his cell phone either playing video games, scrolling through the internet or video-chatting with a prospective girlfriend, Ugyen Pelden. She lives in the capital city of Thimpu and sings in a barroom with a few other women for a mostly male clientele. She’s also keeping a few big secrets from her paramour: She’s a single mom to a toddler daughter and she’s leaving the country soon. Unbeknownst to her, Peyangki is selling medicinal mushrooms (a regional trade) to gather enough funds to abandon monastery life, motivated exclusively by his romantic inklings for her.
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Outside of the sudsy drama unfolding within the narrative, Balmès cunningly and rather magnificently captures fascinating commentary without any heavy-handed, obtrusive sentiments. The meat of this documentary lies in the ways he engages the audience to contemplate bigger-picture questions about modernization and the internet’s positive and negative influences. The manner in which he coaxes out these authentically-manifested ideas is powerful and thought-provoking.
When we see teenage Peyangki in his studies with his classmates at the monastery, it’s in closeup on their faces, deep in prayer, all chanting. But as Balmès slowly pans out from the shot, we see they are all on their smartphones, playing games as the sound of their prayer barely masks the sound of their devices. While getting ready for work, Ugyen and her pals pore over the internet, discussing designer shoes and handbags as dispassionately as they discuss terrorism. In the market, the young monks find a box full of toy guns and play a mock game of war, mimicking gunfire with firecrackers. The overwhelming sentiment here is that these kids have a flippant attitude toward war.
How Balmès visually contextualizes his subjects’ struggles is indelible and impactful, transforming their emotions into tangible imagery. After discovering Ugyen’s situation, a tearful Peyangki is placed in the center of the frame turned away from Ugyen, shoving her into the righthand border, showing he’s centered within the pain of his sobering realization. Later, when he learns she’s abruptly left him with no notice, the camera seems as unmoored and listless as the spurned boyfriend himself, following the lonely soul through the empty, dank streets into a booming, neon-lit disco. While Nicolas Rabaeus’ evocative score complements Peyangki’s mindset, scenes like those in the internet cafés develop a foreboding quality that hits like a wallop.
Other choices aren’t necessarily as effective. Whether it be when Peyangki’s mom shows up to lovingly lecture her son on keeping his goals in focus, or when his disciplinarian master threatens expulsion, the conversations captured in these scenes feel a tad guided by Balmès. It could very well be that what the audience is seeing isn’t director interference, but a result of the subjects’ reluctance or awareness of the camera. We might never know. What bolsters the documentary are the scenes that could never be manipulated, misconstrued or misunderstood.
Suggesting longterm potential akin to Michael Apted’s decades-long “Up” series, it would be great to visit with Peyangki in another 10 years to see if the themes have matured and transformed as much as they did since “Happiness.” Finishing on a definitive, hopeful note helps raise our spirits as we leave the theater. However, the irony Balmès highlights through these two documentaries is that tools meant for creating a community can also break it apart.