In 2013, French documentary-maker Thomas Balmès made a film called Happiness, about an eight-year-old monk called Peyangki in the remote Himalayan village of Laya in Bhutan – and how this boy was responding to the astounding novelties of TV and the internet. Now seven years later, Balmès has returned to Laya and to Peyangki, who has grown to young adulthood in this brave new digital world.
What Balmès has chanced upon now are not simply more instances of how the web has opened or closed that innocent mind: he gives us a sad and sombre love story from the globalised 21st century. Basically, Peyangki is now regularly neglecting his religious studies and is addicted to his smartphone and to the web, though arguably no more so than any other young person in the developed world. And in particular he is into the Chinese video service WeChat, through which he is regularly talking to a woman called Ugyen, apparently a bar hostess in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, who sings songs for him.
Eventually, the two meet in the big city: Ugyen clearly didn’t quite grasp that he was so young and a trainee monk (rather than a possibly well-off farmer, which she assumed from his stories about collecting and selling mushrooms). And he didn’t realise that she had a small child and is, in any case, thinking of quitting the country for two years to do domestic work in Kuwait.
It is a subdued film, and watching it is like continuously walking up a slight gradient. Balmès has subtly guided the stories of his two principals, though the setup is occasionally a little uncomfortable, as when the monk’s master tells Peyangki’s friend to search for him in the city. A thoughtful portrait of separate lives and destinies.
• Released on 1 January in cinemas and on digital formats.