Bhutanese filmmaker Dechen Roder's first feature, bowing at Busan, revolves around a detective's investigation into the case of a missing monk and a "demoness."
A genre long associated with sex and sleaze, film noir receives a surprisingly spiritual and feminine reworking in Bhutanese filmmaker Dechen Roder's beautiful and inventive debut. Revolving around a jaded policeman's relationship with the mysterious woman implicated in the crime he's looking into, Honeygiver Among the Dogs mesmerizes with its enigmatic narrative just as its protagonist falls under the spell of his quarry.
Bowing at the Busan International Film Festival, Roder's first feature offers at once an ethereal reinvention of a long-running genre, and also a leap into territories as yet untouched among filmmakers from the small Himalayan kingdom. Along with Khyentse Norbu's Jeremy Thomas-produced Hema Hema: Sing Me A Song While I Wait — which also features in Busan after its premiere at Locarno — Honeygiver Among the Dogs provides ample evidence of a national cinema in bloom.
The hard-boiled cop here is Kinley (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk), who — like all noir protagonists who came before him — enters the narrative as a somewhat alienated figure. With his uniform and his modern cellphone — through which he receives constant instructions from a faceless superior — Kinley is a peculiar individual among the people in the village where he is sent to look into a possible abduction (or even murder) of an abbess.
Locals tell Kinley to zero in on the recently vanished Choden (Sonam Tashi Choden), a young, mysterious figure who has established a reputation as a flirtatious "demoness" since she arrived in the village years ago. Reporting to his chief about this, Kinley is told he should track her down and try to befriend her to get more information about the case. Tipped off about her whereabouts, Kinley shelves his police gear, hides his identity and follows her in civilian clothes.
But it's the woman who makes the first move: Approaching him, she asks him to travel with her on foot to the capital Thimphu as her "husband," a cover that could free her from the "trouble" she is having with the police. Throughout the journey, she regales him with legends about enlightened female deities fighting social oppression — stories he, a divorced city-dweller who eyes Buddhist murals with suspicion rather than awe, dismisses as "rumors." "I'm more interested in reality," he cuts Choden off at one point.
Kinley's reality becomes much more complicated as they arrive in the city, however, as she takes flight after a few days. Delirium sets in after he suffers from repeated nightmares. Taken off the case by his concerned chief, he goes rogue to try and clear Choden's name, and in doing so reveals corruption and conspiracies around him.
Transplanting film noir aesthetics into Bhutanese locations, Roder and his DP Jigme Tenzing unleash their characters in a universe of shadows: They move about in dark rooms, run down urban back-alleys, and even vast rural outdoor spaces are rendered grey and gloomy during the daytime.
Radiant colors are deployed only in the fantasy scenes depicting Choden's tales of emancipated nuns and goddesses in history. Juxtaposing such ecstatic and admittedly exotic imagery with depictions of quotidian, modern city life, Honeygivers Among the Dogs further unveils Bhutan's new and contradictory social landscape to the world.