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Review: Pig at the Crossing

By Rigsar Wangchuk

27th May, 2024

Dolom wears a patched black leather jacket with his pangtse gho (an abhorrent fashion choice). Dolom buys things from his friends, for which he never plans on paying in full. Dolom’s highest and most profound idea of “freedom” is his motorcycle. Dolom fancies himself a content creator and will gladly sacrifice his stable job as a teacher to pursue this precarious passion. Dolom satisfies the unmet needs of young wives married by old men to delay the impending doom of old age and senility.

In short, Dolom is the quintessential young ‘modern’ Bhutanese man.

Dolom also spends a substantial amount of his time doom-scrolling on social media – whether he lives more in his offline ‘reality’ or within his virtual ‘world’ is an extremely difficult matter to ascertain. It is against this backdrop of Dolom’s ‘reality’ that Pig at the Crossing must be viewed. It is against this background that Pig can be truly appreciated. 

Khyentse Norbu could easily have done a scripture-to-video translation of bardo (with all the authority he possesses on this topic), as it has been portrayed and popularised thus far in the Buddhist canon; however, he chooses to portray bardo from the point of view of Dolom and herein lies the originality of the film.

What does bardo look like for a person living in the 21st century?

While bardo often conjures up images, symbols and sounds, much like the ones that fill up our Tshechu venues, Khyentse Norbu turns this expectation upon its head. Dolom’s bardo is a world filled with characters that reflect the Frankensteinian world of part-traditional heritage and part-globalised reality that we all (especially young ‘modern’ Bhutanese) live and experience on an everyday basis – a Japanese woman searching for ramen, a German woman singing classical opera, an Indian fortune telling sadhu, Abbey road reference, the entrance of Buckingham palace, an old garpa (royal courtier). These strange, discombobulated characters and symbols are an honest commentary on the nature of our experiences itself; it should not be tossed aside as a multicultural masala used to spice up Pig.

While most films now rely heavily on plot or flashy visuals to hold the viewer’s interest, Pig is a film that elevates the mundane. The plot is ridiculously simple: a young man plots with his lover, a married woman, to slip her senile husband Viagra so that her suspected pregnancy can be attributed to him. On his way to deliver three simple items: a pregnancy test kit, some vegetables and Viagra, he is met with an accident and dies. However, to focus simply on the plot would be to miss the central point of Pig.

It is Dolom’s refusal (or is it his incapability?) to accept the simple fact of his death that baffles, frustrates and ultimately inspires empathy from his audience. Even when he witnesses his own corpse being transferred to the funeral tent, Dolom instead sees a literal Pig! He is unable to see himself.

Self-deception, especially regarding one’s inevitable death, after all, is the hardest thing to realise, let alone fully accept. 

For the audience who is armed with the knowledge of Dolom’s death, simple everyday items suddenly take on a larger-than-life significance: the gradual slippage of his time in bardo is measured in the time it takes for clothes on the clothesline to dry. The drying clothes also simultaneously symbolise the phenomenon of bodily death as one is forced to shed one’s precious body, leaving behind only a shell of who it once belonged to. In the final scene, as Dolom’s body is burned on the pyre, the viewers are left looking at the barren clothesline with no material base to point to and confirm our beliefs about a person’s existence. Dolom has traversed into the realm of memories.

The utilisation of sound to drive the film forward is notable. On one level, it reinforces the earlier made point about ‘modern’ reality’s disjointed nature; there isn’t a consistent theme binding them and the score jumps erratically between genres, styles and flavours to make its point. On another level, the sound of the Indian Sadhu’s snapping fingers is the only reminder of Dolom’s bardo reality – a reminder he chooses to ignore so he can remain in his state of self-deception. Since sound is what fills the gaps in the film and set the tone, the most important scenes burn themselves in the audience’s mind with the loudest sound possible: complete and utter silence.

One feels hesitant, even to breathe, in those moments of Pig.

However, while being freed from one’s body at death is supposed to dissolve the boundaries of the senses such that “you can hear the taste of something with your ears or see tase with your eyes” (Indian Sadhu), the film falls a bit flat in depicting this characteristic of bardo. Even the red in the red cactus flower scene falls short of getting the message across.

Good art has the appetite to be misunderstood. It understands, at a fundamental level, that all art is an impossible conversation between the creator and the audience – a realisation often lacking sorely in almost every overdone and overexplained contemporary Bhutanese films made to be shoved through the eyes of audiences, whom the creator believes has nothing else in their heads. Pig has enormous room for interpretation based on who is watching. However to the initiated, certain scenes are pregnant with meaning and scratch that itch which is impossible to describe fully unless one possesses the appropriate context. 

Take the Zarathustra bar scene for instance. A room full of beings still in bardo with unfulfilled longings and desires from their lived world, at the root of which lies their unshakable belief in duality, ego-centrism and absolute good and evil. These values and worldviews, preached by Zarathustra (also themes in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) are what constitute the “wrong view” in Buddhism. This view keeps the customers of the Zarathustra firmly tethered to bardo.

Dondup in Travellers and Magicians

Dondup at the Zarathustra bar

Another insider acknowledgement to the conscious audience of Khyentse Norbu’s film is the cameo appearance of the 2003 Travellers and Magicians protagonist Dondup, now a regular at Zarathustra bar. Despite having ‘fulfilled’ his dream of travelling to the USA, Dondup, who is decked out in a full American-style suit and moustache, is unable to pass through the bardo stage and remains with the need to talk of his exploits in the land of opportunity to new comers in the bar.

One can almost hear Khyentse Norbu say to his audience: “Go to greener pastures if you must but are you also thinking of your death?”

At the end, despite Dolom’s fast-closing window of opportunity to ‘cross over’ to the other side of bardo even with a different ‘guide’, he is unable to do so; He has still not delivered the pregnancy test kit or the Viagra to his lover – two objects of worldly longing. Moreover, while Dolom believes that his motorcycle is keeping him from crossing over, at Abby Road crossing, he realises that that is not it. As childhood memories of his mother burst through his subconscious, he is stricken with immense remorse at not having taken care of his siblings as the eldest brother in the family – another worldly longing. While the audience sees the final bamboo gate open for him, it only does so for a brief moment, before it is closed again. In the end, Dolom dooms himself to remain in bardo, much like the viewers.

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