The Red Phallus is the debut feature from Bhutanese director Tashi Gyeltshen. It is the study of toxic masculinity in a parochial community. The film is powerful at times but ultimately overindulgent in its portrayal of the country. Though it is beautiful, it has little impact on the story that inhabits it, except for as a cage for its downtrodden characters. Subtlety is often lost through the dialogue which is so on the nose that it leaves little room for any interpretation in a rather straight forward story.
Sangay (Tshering Euden) is a 16-year-old girl in rural Bhutan. Like all 16-year-old girls, she resents her single father. She wants to escape her dull existence and move into something more exciting. She knows that she is strong enough but she is held back by the patriarchy that dominates her valley. Her father (Dorji Gyeltshen) is an Atsara – a ceremonial, clown figure in Bhutanese ritual, but also the crafter of bright red, wooden phalluses. Sangay resents delivering these phalluses to the important figures in her community when her meek father refuses to do it. In rebellion, Sangay skips school to meet Passa (Singye), a local butcher and valley pariah. Passa is obsessed with his image and importance as a man, despite the denunciation of Sangay’s father and the local community. As Sangay spends more time with Passa, she rebels further against her upbringing, though Passa may not be her ticket out of the “paradise” that she has lived in for her whole life.
The Red Phallus is a highly symbolic study of toxic masculinity through the lens of Bhutanese tradition. Dark clouds linger over the valley of Phobjika throughout, leading Passa to question whether the sun ever shines on their existence. Sangay lives in a masculine world, one that her father fails to protect her from. When her headmaster recommends that he discipline her, he pathetically nods with little insight on his own daughter. All characters in this film are deeply, deeply flawed and struggle within the social system that they inhabit. All lash out against each other in reaction to society’s rejection of their identity.
The acting is strong all around, especially from first timer Tshering Euden who retains the reserved emotions of Sangay excellently, even as her world falls apart around her. Though the film is certainly beautiful, it is incredibly indulgent. Director Tashi Gyeltshen uses wide shots in excess, characters slowly moving from one side of the frame to the other on many occasions. Gyeltshen relies on the locale too much, with the overall story lacking. The dialogue is often too blunt, with the subtlety of the characters lost in their expository conversations. Passa’s arrogance is clear to see, without his constant claims that “I am a man”. It detracts from an otherwise intriguing story. The film is simply too slow, lacking in drama until its climax, relying on an atmosphere of restraint which never fully delivers an emotional punch.
The Red Phallus is a slow film, filled with beauty, but it never manages to fully deconstruct the toxic culture that it analyses. Sangay’s story is a sad one, but director Tashi Gyeltshen does not offer us enough to be fully invested in her story, tragic as it is. Instead, we are given beautiful shots of the countryside and underdeveloped dialogue. It is certainly striking, but it fails to ring the emotional tones that it sets out to.
Drama | Bhutan, 2018 | 15 | 2019 Edinburgh Film Festival | 21/23 June | Dir.Tashi Gyeltshen | Tshering Euden, Singye, Dorji Gyeltshen