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‘Agent of Happiness’ Review: A Documentary Searches for True Contentment in Bhutan

By reputation, the Kingdom of Bhutan is the happiest country on Earth, but the “Agent of Happiness” seeks to explore that assertion. The documentary by Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó follows the routine of 40-year-old Amber, one of 75 government workers hired to survey people’s happiness on a mathematical scale, and it details not only the lives of his interviewees, but also that of the agent himself. It remains, for most part, a withheld, no-frills investigation, whose commentary is light and self-evident. With no “talking heads,” the film plays out more like dramatized docufiction, but eventually, its patchwork of subjects is woven together to create something melodic and meaningful.

Lush shots of the rural mountainside lure us into Bhutan, and into the life of Amber, as he gently clips his mother’s nails before donning his government robes. As he drives through numerous villages with his partner, fellow agent Guna, they listen to classic Bollywood tunes (like “Aye Mere Humsafar,” about fellow travelers) as they casually discuss their personal and romantic lives. Everything feels ordinary and familiar, at least until the clipboards come out and the duo sits down to ask individual farmers — and eventually, city-dwellers — a series of 148 questions that, to an outsider’s ear, can’t help but sound bizarre.

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This is all in service of calculating the country’s Gross National Happiness, a percentage point on which Bhutan prides itself. The criteria ranges from the objective — the number of cows, goats or tractors someone owns, though this hardly applies to a country’s growing urban youth — to the subjective, and even abstract. Do you trust your neighbors? How is your work life balance? What is your sense of karma?

Are you happy?

No one in the film feels forced or compelled to answer, and the process comes off as a mere job for Amber, rather than a jingoistic duty. Still, everyone readily participates. For some it’s a matter of pride, while for others, it’s a mild, “let’s get it over with” inconvenience. However, though “Agent of Happiness” begins as a procedural documentary, its true heart and soul are revealed through its use of dramatic tools, like quiet close-ups and voiceovers from various subjects. The film begins moving more distinctly in this direction once it introduces urban bar dancer Dechen, a transgender woman to whom very few (if any) of Amber’s questions apply.

The film effectively cedes narrative control to her, as she speaks of her family history and abstractions like looming despondency. The same narrative agency is ceded to various other women in unique circumstances, from three disgruntled wives of the same man who find comfort in one another, to a teenager whose insecurities are magnified by the world algorithmically curated by her TikTok feed (most often, attractive white women). These women’s lives don’t fit neatly into the data of the government’s survey. Instead, Bhattarai and Zurbó channel their expressions (and in some cases, their inability to fully express themselves) through shots of nature, and through Ádám Balázs’ melodic, chiming musical score. The further the film goes on, the more it transitions from literal and observational, to poetic impressionistic.

“Agent of Happiness” has its amusing moments too. Each subject’s “happiness level” (as determined by their survey) pops up on screen after Amber interviews them, along with the numerical answers to several questions, as though they were video game statistics. However, the shift in context around these numbers, depending on the movie’s tone in a given segment, renders them either ironic answers to questions jokingly implied (what does the man with three wives think of his life?) or devastating truths about what happiness might truly mean for some of the people we meet, and how far out of reach it may be. Amber, for instance, is ethnically Nepali (Bhutan has a history of delegitimizing Lhotshampa Nepali people), and his sense of belonging is dependent not only on a cultural notion of contentment, but on politics and paperwork.

With numerous shots of smartphones, framed as windows to desire, and scenes of casual conversation that slowly reveal lingering discontentment, “Agent of Happiness” uses meaningful visual contrast to scrutinize Bhutan’s narrative about itself. It re-injects a vibrant sense of nuance into an exercise that, though nominally geared toward gauging humanity, too often reduces it to a number. The result is both calming and humanizing, as though it were an artistic embodiment of the very contentment the Kingdom boasts.

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