Golden Kingdom, a narrative feature that seems at first to be a documentary, takes us someplace we might want to visit and convinces us it’s utterly different from anywhere else. It shows what happens when a Buddhist abbot, deep in the countryside of Burma (now Myanmar), leaves his four preteen novice monks alone in their remote monastery for a few weeks while away on business. The things they see, and the things they think they see, haunt them. Producer-writer-director Brian Perkins’ thoroughly indie debut has the flavor of a first-class travelogue as well as of the new wave of Southeast Asian “jungle pics,” with cold reality splashing into phantasmagorical scenes of forest apparitions.
The four hairless ko yin neophytes, none much older than ten, are all non-actors. They’re childish but also studious, playing boys’ games while at the same time absorbing moral lessons and learning sutras. The atmosphere is quiet and meditative as they go about their monastic routines of prayer and reflection. When the abbot is suddenly called away and they’re left on their own, the boys are soon cajoled by their chosen leader, Witazara (played by Shine Htet Zaw), to get back to the task of “living blamelessly and at ease,” and listening to him recite the parable of the monkey chief, the mangoes, and the king of the great city. As time passes, terrors and temptations of the outside world filter into the boys’ consciousness.
Filmmaker Perkins, a former UC Berkeley and NYU grad student now operating out of Berlin and Southeast Asia, evidently became fascinated with the role of Buddhist monks in providing social and spiritual guidance in Burma during its long civil war, and particularly the plight of orphaned children taken in by monasteries. Golden Kingdom is the first international feature film produced in the country since its recent reopening.
The viewpoint will be familiar to fans of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), and also, touchingly, to fans of Nobody Knows, director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s fable of children abandoned by their mother — except that the four ko yin lack the cuteness factor. With their seriousness of purpose, they’re more like diminutive middle-aged men. Welcome to a setting where jungle spirits can turn a kid into a tiger and hungry ghosts can shake a house’s shutters — where nobody worries about a wi-fi connection or what to wear that day, because simply staying alive takes up everyone’s spare time.