“Honeygiver Among the Dogs” is definitely a unique entry in international cinema. Aside from the fact that it is actually a noir film from Bhutan, what sets the movie apart is its aesthetics, which combine elements of thriller and road movie with Buddhism and the supernatural, all of which are used to present a number of social comments. Let us take things from the beginning though.
The title of the film is a reference to the story from the life of Yeshe Tsogyal, the mother of Tibetan Buddhism, also known as the Wisdom Lake Queen. She was the closest disciple of Padmasambhawa, the founder of this religious school and the first person in Tibet who achieved full enlightenment. The repeated concept of the daikini refers to enlightened women and female Buddhas, personifications of female sexual energy, who convey the wisdom and the traditions of past generations, often accused of using dark magic (source: Five Flavours Film Festival).
The noir film almost always involves a detective and a femme fatale. In this case, the latter is policeman Kinley, who comes to a secluded village to investigate the disappearance of the abbess of a monastery hidden in the Bhutanese forests. His search quickly leads him towards Choden (the femme fatale), a mysterious and very beautiful woman who resides in the area and quickly disappears as soon as she is informed that the police is searching for her. Under orders from his, quite intent to solve the case, chief, Kinley follows her in order to befriend her, but instead finds himself lead on by her, in a trip through the forests that eventually points to a case much more complicated than he ever imagined.
Dechen Roder uses the aforementioned combination to present a number of social comments, mostly through metaphor. The concept of the dakini is a metaphor for the role of women in Bhutanese society, where they are expected to be timid and just to follow the men, with any who acts otherwise, being demonized, both metaphorically and in essence. In ironic fashion, in the beginning of the film, one of the policemen that investigate the case says, “How far can a woman travel alone through Bhutan?”, with the script actually making a point of showing how false a statement like that can be. The fact that almost all of the above are turned around during the finale is another great element of the narrative, which adds depth to the whole concept of demonization.
The prejudice towards outsiders and the superstition that dominates the small societies in particular is another one, while a most obvious comment refers to the corruption of the officials and the greed of people, which lead towards social oppression, with the supernatural functioning as punishment in this case.
As Kinley learns more about the case and Choden, the noir element of the movie comes to the fore, with the former providing a very fitting femme fatale, who, as usually in the genre, is much more than she appears to be. Both Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk as Kinley and Sonam Tashi Choden as Choden are quite fitting to their roles, both due to their performance and their appearance. Wangchuk is impressive as the strict and sure of himself policeman whose interaction with Choden turns him into someone completely different. The annoyance and discomfort he emits as soon as he is stripped of his uniform is the highlight of his performance. Gorgeous Choden provides an eerie and mysterious performance that suits the archetype of the femme fatale to the fullest.
The road-trip aspect derives from the trip the two protagonists take, that has them walking through cities and forests, in an element that highlights the, mostly bucolic, beauties of the country, and occasionally allows the film to function as a tour guide. Jigme Tenzing’s cinematography benefits this aspect to the most, with his camera captioning both the realistic and the supernatural events with a combination of artistry and realism, in a world that seems to be dominated by the shadows rather than the light, even during daytime.
Dechen Roder’s own editing infuses the film with a pace usually associated with art-house films, although a bit faster, while the various flashbacks and dreams (nightmares if you prefer) are embedded in the narrative nicely. The mysterious atmosphere that emits an aura of uncertainty towards the viewer is heightened even more by the minimalistic and quite fitting music of Tashi Dorji, which complements the general aesthetics perfectly.
“Honeygiver Among the Dogs” is a more than hopeful debut and an elaborate movie from a director who definitely deserves more attention.