Let Him Eat Tacos

The Orange County Register really loves "The Boy Monk." They're so gaga over their four-day series from this past January that they've spun it into a documentary film that's now available on DVD format. But if the Grand Avenue brain trust thought the big- (and now small-) screen treatment would mask flaws in the original source material, they were sorely mistaken. The Boy Monk just makes them more glaring.

"The Boy Monk" chronicled the transformation of 16-year-old Konchong "Kusho" Osel, né Donald Pham, from pampered Laguna Niguel boy to aspiring Tibetan monk. The Reg–which has spent years courting the county's Vietnamese community with various interest stories–went to great lengths in drawing attention to the piece: they published each installment as a pull-out section, had writers Anh Do and Teri Sforza host community forums geared toward Vietnamese audiences, and noted in the finale that Sforza was preparing a documentary on Osel's life. Completed in April, The Boy Monk recently concluded a run at the Westminster-based facilities of Nguoi Viet Daily News (Little Saigon's most influential newspaper and, not coincidentally, owned by Anh's father, Yen Do). You can pick up the DVD for 10 bucks at the Nguoi Viet offices.

"The Boy Monk" serial was a good read, if bogged down by nagging questions left unanswered by Do and Sforza. The cinematic version, however, is terrible. Not only does The Boy Monk fail to expand on Osel's intriguing personal and theological journey, its lack of any story arc inadvertently exacerbates the holes that Do and Sforza never filled on the printed page.

What was most enjoyable about that version–the young Osel's struggles in adjusting to the ascetic lifestyle–is absent from the 31-minute film. Instead, viewers must endure the direction of Sforza, who exhibits the technical expertise of someone shooting a kindergarten-graduation home video. Still photos–many reprints of shots originally appearing in The Reg serial–and grainy stock footage make up a large portion of the imagery. Interviews with various family members and Osel's contemporaries seem spliced together, jerking from one thought to another even within the same sentence. A distracting backdrop of vaguely Indian music bubbles throughout the film, sometimes drowning out interviews. Reg reporter Aldrin Brown's stultifying narration sucks the life out of Do's gentle prose, which serves as much of the film's dialogue. And Sforza's use of subtitles for Vietnamese who speak perfectly clear English–even for Osel, whose South County dialect is painfully on display–is insultingly patronizing.

Sforza assumes her viewers are not interested in what the protagonists in The Boy Monk have to say and thus shows everything that the interviewees or Brown's narration discuss. A bevy of insert shots disrupts the film, preventing dramatic buildup, even when those being interviewed are discussing Tibetans fleeing from the communists or the path toward nirvana. It's hard to take any film seriously that cuts away to tacos over the dialogue of a monk expressing his desire for some.

Most fatally, however, The Boy Monk, like the printed piece, never pursues the difficult question of whether Osel's parents pressured him into becoming a monk. At one point, Osel nervously tells the camera, "I guess [an elder monk] and my parents agreed for me to become a monk. Yeah, I guess I just kind of agreed with it or whatever. . . . I guess they wanted me to do this."

Similar sentiments are completely missing from the printed series and, given the absence of follow-up from the documentarians, apparently unimportant to them. Meanwhile, the one dissenting voice–Osel's grandfather, who freely avows that it was the parents' desire to see their son become a monk, not the child's–is given about 10 seconds of screen time and is never seen again.

Even more maddeningly, both versions reveal that Osel found the monastery that he originally attended too strenuous in its pursuit of nirvana, so he transferred to a more Westernized facility. What could have been a chance to ask probing questions about the strength of this boy monk's faith is, again, not considered crucial to the story. But doesn't Osel's transfer signify that his Tibetan odyssey seems more of a vacation than spiritual quest? And if he's renouncing all worldly desires, doesn't it seem strange that he still calls home every other week, still indulges himself with care packages sent from his family containing hip-hop CDs and Gap clothes, and still eats meals on his own rather than join his fellow monks? That's a mantra The Boy Monk doesn't ponder.

The Boy Monk is available on DVD at theNguoi Viet Daily News offices, 14771-14772 Moran St., Westminster, (714) 892-9414. $10.

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