A blanket of gloomy gray cloud hovers above a remote village in the heavily symbolic Bhutanese drama “The Red Phallus.” Relating the tale of a 16-year-old girl driven slowly to madness by the men around her, Tashi Gyeltshen’s noteworthy feature debut is marked by pungent criticism of stifling social norms and psychological violence that’s rarely found in cinema from The Happy Kingdom. Though a tad slow at times, “Phallus” leaves a lasting impression and ought to get a boost for an impressive festival run begun at Busan thanks to screenings at FilMart and Hong Kong.
“I doubt anyone can get out of this paradise.” That’s how one character describes the constraints of life in the valley of Phobjika, near the Black Mountains in central Bhutan. This bitterly ironic observation sums up the spirit of Gyeltshen’s film, which takes us to a place of great beauty and casts a penetrating eye on the imperfect state of things.
Newcomer Tshering Euden gives a compelling central performance as Sangay, a troubled teenager who sleeps under her bed, barely talks and suffers bullying at school. Some of this cruelty is directed at the profession of her widowed father, Ap (Dorji Gyeltshen), a craftsman who produces wooden phalluses traditionally used to ward off evil spirits. Ap also serves as the local atsara, a masked, clown-like figure who entertains crowds at religious festivals. Unwilling to ask his daughter even a basic question about why she might be upset, and meekly nodding as the stern school headmaster (Choten Wangchuk) threatens Sangay with suspension for her truancy, Ap simply tells her to “wash your hands and rinse off your bad behavior.”
Sangay’s sadness is compounded by her illicit and unsatisfying affair with Passa (Singye), a married man whose occupation as a butcher places him at the very bottom of the caste system. Initially, Passa seems kind, but his tone changes dramatically when Sangay fails to immediately show enthusiasm for his hare-brained plan to run away together to Thimpu. From this point onward, Passa incessantly berates Sangay for being stupid and weak. The verbal abuse Passa hurls at her shows that in this rural place, even the lowest-ranking man believes he can treat women with contempt.
These realistic depictions of patriarchal society dominating, belittling, and ignoring Sangay are complemented by powerful excursions into fantasy. The most memorable finds Sangay walking through a field as dozens of men appear wearing masks and ceremonial clothes while brandishing wooden phalluses. Importantly, female strength is not forgotten. In a moving dream sequence, Sangay weaves a kishuthara (traditional cloth) for her late mother that’s as long as the valley itself and seems like it’s casting a protective shield over her.
Aside from lingering a little too long on wide shots of the striking location, “Phallus” maintains a steady, stealthy rhythm toward its final destination. When Sangay’s inner rage becomes too much to bear, her actions are swift and startling. “Who said I am not strong enough?” she says, after remaining virtually silent for much of the running time.
Playing a key role in creating the atmosphere of alienation and isolation that’s gradually consuming Sangay is the interplay between Niraj Gera’s meticulously arranged sound design and the other-worldly score created by leading local musician Jigme Drupka and American cellist Frances-Marie Uitti. All other technical aspects are fine.