'Arrows of the Thunder Dragon': Film Review

A languid love letter to Bhutan.

Greg Sneddon’s debut is the official Australian entry for best foreign-language film at the 2016 Academy Awards.

Arrows of the Thunder Dragon reps the first film from Greg Sneddon, an Australian who turned to filmmaking after a stint as a Buddhist monk. A supremely leisurely portrait of the tiny nation of Bhutan with only the wispiest of narratives sprinkled on top, this visually arresting first feature works best as a feat of ethnographic quasi-documentary. Peopled with locals acting for the first time, this lo-fi affair takes us into another world, still medieval for all intents and purposes, but those looking for incident will find a long wait between arrow volleys.

Originally screened in an unfinished version at festivals in 2013, Arrows makes an educating but dramatically rather underpowered companion piece to this year’s critically garlanded Tanna, another Australian-made dive into an indigenous culture in which tradition and the modern world rub uneasy elbows. 

The stakes are much higher in that film from Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, though the gentle pace of Arrows of the Thunder Dragon is of a piece with the remote Himalayan world it showcases. Inspired partly by the life of Sherab Zam, a female archer from Bhutan who competed in the Olympics, Sneddon’s film tells the story of Jamyang (Tshering Zangmo), a young girl whose narration is threaded throughout. The voiceover is in English, while the strictly functional dialogue is spoken entirely in the local language of Dzongkha.

Set in 1976 before jumping forward to 1986, when Jamyang and her brother, Kuenphen (Tandin Phub), have become young adults, Arrows depicts a Bhutan only just beginning to open up, with remote villages becoming linked by bridges across treacherous rivers.

Jamyang grows up with her grandfather, Sangay (Kandu), a great archer, but is frustrated when Kuenphen is taught how to shoot and taken on expeditions and she is left behind to weave and cook with her mother. Sangay and Kuenphen visit Grandpa’s old girlfriend, Drolma, now a nun. The women await their return, and editor Jill Bilcock (Moulin Rouge, The Dressmaker) and DP Leki Dorji overuse the cross-fade to switch between them; the film, with a sunny digital sheen mostly devoid of shadows, can sometimes feel like high-end travel TV, only without an Attenborough to direct our interest.

That figure is presumably meant to be our narrator. Jamyang’s search for gender equality in a culture unchanged for centuries and her eventual path to archery academy suggests that hers is the story of the film. Unfortunately she barely registers except in voiceover, shunted aside by the story of her brother’s audition for the village archery team. "I had never seen him so nervous," recalls Jamyang, looking on, and that’s all she really does throughout. Which might be the point, but it doesn’t make for a very riveting portrait of enfranchisement.

Their mother gets sick and Kuenphen must trek overland to find medical care, aided by the region’s avuncular tax collector, Mr. Tashi. On the way Tashi discovers the young man’s skill with the bow. On arrival at Trongsa fortress — a local stronghold full of buses and cars and other novelties — Kuenphen is co-opted into the city’s upcoming archery tourney against Thimphu, a neighboring town. He dutifully heads off to compete, all while his mother is presumably recuperating, though the film never checks back in with her.

Meanwhile, in an elliptical sequence, Sangay is killed while hunting — though the strange visual approach to this scene makes its reality ambiguous. The old man is stalking a man wearing an antlered-mask when he’s shot in the back by by another antlered figure, all while spot-lit against a black screen.

Credits are competent if only just across the board, with the director providing his own lightly sketched score and the neophyte actors plucked from the highlands and undemonstrative to a fault.

Sneddon saves his most lyrical scene for last, in which the emotional colorlessness of the film starts to give way. After old Sangay’s death, his one-time love Drolma climbs into the mountains en route to the retreat caves in northern Bhutan, "not to return to this life." Arrows of the Thunder Dragon is defiantly unhurried. As Drolma slowly disappears into the trees, that approach at least feels honest.

Production Company: Flying Squad Services

Cast: Tshering Zangmo, Kandu, Tandin Phub, Shacha, Sonam Tshomo, Karma Yangchen

Writer-Director: Greg Sneddon

Producers: Tee Dee Dorji, Tshering Dorji, Greg Sneddon

Executive Producer: Michael Wrenn

Director of Photography: Leki Dorji

Composer: Greg Sneddon

Editor: Jill Bilcock

Sound Editor: Chris Goodes

Sales: Wide Management

No rating, 89 minutes