‘Sing Me a Song’ Review: Technology vs. the Contemplative Life


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The French filmmaker Thomas Balmès follows a Bhutanese boy as he becomes a man and finds a life outside the monastery where he grew up.

Following his 2014 film “Happiness,” which profiles Peyangki, a boy in a Bhutanese monastery, director Thomas Balmès returned to make the striking new documentary, “Sing Me a Song.” Here, Peyangki is 10 years older and living in what seems like a completely different world: one changed by the internet and television. Bhutan was the last nation to adopt these technologies, and Balmès’s all-seeing eye captures the profound impact they had on Peyangki and his hometown, Laya.

In an opening flashback sequence, young Peyangki leads an idyllic life of meditation. After the “10 years later” title card, he is bombarded by the sound of his smartphone alarm. Balmès, who was also the cinematographer, weaves together startling footage of the aftermath of technological transformation. At the temple, a row of Buddhist monks can be seen chanting in unison with their faces buried in their phones. Later, some of the young monks engage in violent role play with toy guns.

As Peyangki finds connection to the outside world, he becomes tempted to leave the monastery — especially as he strikes up an online relationship with a woman. He ventures to the capital city of Thimphu to meet her, adding narrative weight to this nonfiction vérité doc. The reality check brought on by a disappointing date feels both true to life and staged — especially since Balmès sets up beautifully lit, stylized scenes that look like music videos.

Balmès doesn’t arrive at easy, scathing conclusions about the internet. Instead, he lets the camera journey to unexpected places, leading to a different kind of meditation that strikes with deep emotional resonance, illustrating the coexistence of old and new and driving home how modern conveniences can shake an entire nation’s faith.

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