A box office sensation in Bhutan, “Golden Cousin” is written and directed by Kesang P. Jigme and so far has earned him a Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Director Award at the 16th National Film Award in Bhutan, plus the recently established Prime Minister’s Award.
Golden Cousin screened at Five Flavours
Choden and Sonam are two happy children living in harmony within the beautiful nature of rural Bhutan. Sonam (the boy) lives with his widowed mum and Choden too lives with her single dad, and in addition, the children’s parents are brother and sister, making Sonam and Choden two so-called Golden Cousins (cross cousins). The two half families have always been supporting each other as life is a struggle for single parents and inevitably, time comes when the two siblings start talking about arranging their children’s marriage. In Bhutan, this is an age-old tradition and they recon it would also help to avoid dispersion of money and resources. 12 years later, we find Sonam (Tsheing Phuntsho) and Choden (Dechen Wangmo) as young adults and ready to leave the nest, but only Sonam will have the opportunity to go and study in Thimphu, with the aid of the mother and uncle.
Once at College in the capital city, Sonam is exposed to a radically different lifestyle. Many of his fellow students are wealthy and modern, in particularly the beautiful and emancipated Yangchen (Sonam Chodem Tenzin) whose flirty manners captures Sonam and a sincere affection springs between the two. When Yangchen is sent by the family to study medicine in Sri Lanka, the two promise each other to meet again.
3 years have passed when Sonam goes back to the village and he cannot conceal his unease with Choden. He is tormented by guilt for letting his family down after they helped him to get an education, but he is also determined to talk to his fiancé about the risks of incestuous marriages and break the bond.
“Golden Cousin” deals with a social issue that stems from the past but that is still a hot topic in the rural eastern districts of Bhutan, even today. Traditions of marriages between cross cousins, arranged marriages and even child marriages are still widely practiced despite a recent ban, in order to maintain integrity of capitals and family ties and to procreate early for farm labor. This problem goes hand in hand with a low public knowledge on the medical implications of all these practices and a general distrust in modern medicine. Cleverly, the movie chooses to talk to the public about these topics with the language of pop culture and director / writer Kesang P. Jigme has put together an educational musical melodrama with handsome protagonists, bucolic backdrops and catchy songs along the way.
Unsurprisingly successful, the film steers very much away from moral considerations, letting causes and effects roll and alternate in front of us. What might surprise a western viewer is the complete lack of negative characters. There are no villains in this cousins’ saga, no evil uncles, nor jealous lovers. Everyone has got decent reasons behind actions and acceptance is the undercurrent pattern of this folk tail, infused with Buddhism where the words “fate” and “karma” pop up fairly often. In fact, the message here is so carefully wrapped and delivered that risks to emerge excessively understated, but it is clearly made to gently touch a vast slice of Bhutanese public, from rural folks to modern city dwellers. However, at 2 hour and 20 minute running time, the film is surprisingly engaging, with tension raising as the protagonists struggle with life choices and face the consequences.
The acting is passionate and reminiscent of Bollywood exuberance and there is a good chemistry between the two sweethearts, while a pleasant touch of comedy relief is provided by the uncle/father and Sonam’s college mate. The Original Soundtrack is sometimes slightly intrusive for the western taste but it is very evocative, executed with traditional instruments and – like the movie – is also experiencing a big commercial success. Needless to say, the nature is a lush backdrop for the exotic costumes, beautifully shot by cinematographer Choeku Dorji.
“Golden Cousin” explores the conflict between an old Bhutanese tradition and the need to review it in modern society and does it with charm and a nonjudgmental touch.