Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Tashi Gyeltshen's The Red Phallus is showing February 23 - March 23, 2020 in the series Direct from the Berlinale.
The heroine of Tashi Gyeltshen’s debut feature The Red Phallus, Sangay (Tshering Euden), is as lonely as a teenage girl can be. She has no friends, she struggles to connect with her father, and she has a boyfriend who doesn’t understand her and constantly pushes her to be something she is not. Her loneliness is dramatically amplified by the vast, pristine valley in Bhutan in which she lives, which she navigates by foot, her steps muffled by the overwhelming nature as her small figure is swallowed by the hills. Crucially, however, her loneliness is gendered: having lost her mother, she lives alone with her father who works as an atsara, a traditional Bhutanese figure who carves wooden phalluses to wield at local festivals. As a result Sangay is, both literally and figuratively, surrounded by phalluses.
Gyeltshen’s overt provocation, as explicit as it may be, zooms in on the inescapability of a patriarchal society, effectively rendering the feeling of claustrophobia and isolation that is unavoidable for a young woman, especially if she is deprived of feminine contact. As a result, Sangay is mostly quiet while the men around her talk at her and about her, using her as a means of establishing superiority over each other. Her boyfriend Passa asks her to run away with him, despite the fact that he has a wife and kids, and berates her when she says no, accusing her of following her father’s orders but implicitly expecting her to follow his own. The problem, for him, is not that she’s subjected to someone else’s will, but that she is not subjected to his will. Effectively, however, Sangay is only loyal to herself.
Rejecting her father’s weak attempts at fatherhood, refusing to oblige to her boyfriend’s demands, ignoring her scholastic obligation to the point of becoming cause of concern for her teacher—just another man who thinks he knows best—Sangay protects herself behind a wall of silence that is anything but passive. The association of silence and passivity, especially when connected to femininity, is all too common. We’ve seen it recently in the controversy surrounding Anna Paquin’s lack of spoken dialogue in The Irishman: similarly to Sangay, Paquin’s character Peggy Sheeran exists in a world of violent men, from which women are not as much actively excluded as they are removed, as if they existed on a separate plane of existence that is protected but also devoid of any agency. Peggy’s silence, however, is not a remissive acceptance of this divide: it is an active self-exclusion from a narrative of violence and patriarchal rules, a tool she developed to preserve and develop her own existence, deliberately shutting out her father and his world by refusing to communicate with it.
Sangay adopts a similar strategy in The Red Phallus. We only hear her speak a handful of times, and she only speaks when she’s angry. Even then, she’s restrained, level-headed, and to the point. She argues with her boyfriend maintaining a stoic posture, looking ahead of her instead of him, while he gets agitated and frustrated to the point of exclaiming that it’s “easier to start a fistfight with a man than to discuss things with you.” And of course it would be: essentially, she and Passa are speaking different languages. He relies on violence, both physical and verbal, and Sangay rejects it, or at least she does until it becomes the only means of effective resistance to the constant abuse Passa inflicts on her.
“Don’t assume my silence is empty,” she tells him, during one of their conversations. Effectively coming as a non sequitur, unrelated to one of Passa’s many self-pitying rants, it’s the first sentence for which Sangay breaks her composure, if only slightly, and looks in his direction (even though she can’t bear to look him in the eye). It’s a moment of self-actualization: only she knows the full extent of her own depth, and while it is not worth attempting to share it with someone who doesn’t speak her language, her statement is essential to remind herself of who she is, beyond the projections of her boyfriend, father, and teacher. Up until this moment, Gyeltshen lets us project, too: using her silence as a tool, he allows us to observe Sangay as she goes about her small day-to-day activities, isolating her in the frame in lingering, meditative shots, asking the viewer to make an effort to gauge what she’s not saying, but only revealing the full extent of her trauma during the film’s destabilizing final act. The only access we get to her inner psyche until then is granted by evocative dream sequences, which visualize what haunts her.
In what is perhaps the most memorable image of the film, Sangay is being followed by dozens of atsaras dressed in red, brandishing wooden phalluses, their faces covered by devilish masks. It is a hallucination, a nightmare, but it is also a pretty literal depiction of Sangay’s reality: a little girl, defenseless and lonely, suffocated by the masculine presence in her life. It is interesting to note that, traditionally, the atsara is a comical figure; and yet, seen through Sangay’s eyes, their presence is nothing other than a daunting threat. How could it be any different? How could a girl see a group of men toying with the symbol of her trauma, and laugh at it? So instead, Sangay stays quiet. She lets her rightful anger simmer. She tries to weave it away in an intricate fabric she makes for her late mother. She looks away from the men that cause it. But instead of emptying her, her anger fills her, and fills her silence until it erupts into a scream.