Review: The Red Phallus
by Davide Abbatescianni
- BERLIN 2019: Tashi Gyeltshen's debut feature unfolds in an interesting setting and employs some commendable visual solutions, but its slow pace fails to keep viewers hooked
Yesterday, the Zoo Palast hosted the screening of Tashi Gyeltshen's first feature, The Red Phallus [+see also:
film profile], presented in the Generation 14plus section of the 69th Berlinale. Before taking on this project, the Bhutanese writer-director worked as a journalist for various newspapers and helmed three shorts: Girl with a Red Sky (2009), Sem Gi Jurwa (2010) and The Red Door (2014).
The movie opens with a stunning shot depicting a foggy, mountainous landscape. Indeed, the story of Gyeltshen's feature is set in a remote village at the foot of the Himalayas and revolves around a submissive 16-year-old girl called Sangay (Tshering Euden), who lives with her father, Ap Atsara (Dorji Gyeltshen). Ap Atsara is an artisan who adheres resolutely to the age-old ways of life and carves phalli from wood to ward off evil spirits. He wants to protect Sangay at all costs, which he does by controlling her every move and decision. His nature as a control freak becomes even more pronounced when he finds out that Sangay is having a secret affair with a married butcher, Passa (Singye), who keeps pressuring her to run off to Thimphu with him.
Gyeltshen's characters are all portrayed by non-professional actors; while this is a good choice for the role of Sangay (viewers will enjoy the rather impressive performance by newcomer Tshering Euden), we do not see the same quality in the male leads, who at times overact their anger and frustration, and are sometimes simply not convincing on screen (the confrontation scene between the two is a shining example of these flaws). Another major problem is the rhythm of the narration; while in the first scenes, the extremely slow pace could be seen as a peculiar way to gradually immerse the viewers in the characters' world and help them to familiarise themselves with Sangay's feelings of isolation and oppression, it also quickly becomes a hindrance when it comes to keeping them hooked. For instance, throughout the film, we see a number of interminable takes showing the characters walking from one place to another; the rural Bhutanese landscape is certainly beautiful in these shots, but the sheer duration of them does not build up any tension or add anything significant to the plot. The characters are also poorly developed: Ap Atsara's passiveness in the face of Passa's allegations during their confrontation is almost inexplicable, and the violent turn in Passa and Sangay’s story may be a plausible outcome of their toxic affair, but is staged without any adequate build-up or backstory.
Nonetheless, Gyeltshen's visual rigour is exceptional, and here, the sound design (courtesy of Niraj Gera) really constitutes the film’s score: a gentle breeze, the sound of someone carving wood and the crackling of fire contribute to successfully conveying the alienating atmosphere of the Bhutanese village. In future, it would be interesting to see what Gyeltshen is capable of doing with a more finely tuned script and a cast of professionals.
The Red Phallus was produced by weltfilm (Germany), Studio 108 (Bhutan), Zoom Out Productions (Bhutan) and Icefall Productions (Nepal). Hong Kong-based firm Asian Shadows is currently handling its world sales.
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