Brian Perkins’ debut feature, GOLDEN KINGDOM, is a profoundly lyrical film about life, death, and spirituality. Set in a small rural Buddhist monastery in Myanmar, it’s the story of Ko Yin Witazara (Shine Htet Zaw), a boy monk who is put in charge of his three fellow boy monks when their abbot is called away to the capital. As the days pass, and the outside world encroaches on the boys, what is real becomes subjective as we experience what transpires through Witazara’s eyes and understanding, an understanding that includes an illness that can turn a boy into a tiger, and a field of villagers mowed down by any unseen force , though one that we from the outside world can all too readily identify. It begins and end with a match being lighted, luminous bookends on the magical reality that will be Witazara’s journey, a hero’s journey that will encompass the cycle of life itself, and where parables have more truth that factual reportage.
Perkins uses only non-professional actors who give performances that are both unstudied and devastatingly effective, the boy monks, it should be noted, played by actual boy monks. The rhythms of daily life, prayer, play, meals, and sleep take on a comforting timelessness until that rhythm is disrupted on the day that the old man who brings the monks their daily meal also brings the official letter summoning the abbot. Left to their own devices, the boys continue the routine, but when one day the old man doesn’t arrive, their lives are disrupted by what may or may not be spirits, what may or may not be hungry ghosts, but which is, without a doubt, a threat to their simple but eminently joyful way of life.
By using the idiom of innocent eyes seeing what they cannot comprehend, Perkins offers us a way of understanding that a more expositional narrative would not afford. He also immerses us in this alien world by using a minimum of spoken dialogue, but a wealth of visual touchstones that are universal. His is a deliberate, poetic use of his camera, mindful of the moment and finding within each detail an entire story. From a lingering shot of the abbot’s hands, one finger calloused from counting his rosary that moves to the faces of each boy as he shows his mastery of meditation, or lack of same, he depicts the palpable struggle for spiritual peace and stillness, that is also charming in its childlike earnestness.
THE GOLDEN KINGDOM is a mesmerizing meditation on cause and effect. The acting is subtle, but the emotional wallop is not as Witazara matures before our eyes, while still remaining a little boy forced to take on more than someone of his age should have to negotiate. He becomes the distillation of all the other characters as they are preyed upon and victimized by the decisions made by people 10, 100 , or even 1000 miles away for whom this boy is a non-entity, and of whom this boy has never heard, and perhaps never will.