Agent of Happiness (2024)

Sundance Film Review: Agent of Happiness

Film Reviews

Sundance Film Review: Agent of Happiness
Directors: Arun Bhattarai, Dorottya Zurbó

Match Frame Productions
Premiere: 01.19

Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó’s documentary Agent of Happiness follows representatives of a Bhutanese agency that surveys and indexes the country’s levels of happiness per-capita. They drive through the remote and fog-soaked Himalayan mountainscape, interviewing people from diverse walks of life—rural and urban, old and young. They ask each person 148 questions in nine categories, ranging from matters of jealousy and selfishness to perceptions of karma and to the number of mules per household.

“Your job contributes to nation-building and will help our country prosper,” says an instructor from the agency. Being able to identify and apply principles of prosperous living across the nation’s entire population is a philosophy that’s central to the Bhutanese government. The film is a gentle investigation into the questions raised by this policy: Is happiness quantifiable? In the modern world, is satisfaction found in conforming to society’s prescriptions or by constructing one’s own standards? How does the simplicity of one’s life correlate with one’s sense of satisfaction?

The agency representatives ask an old man whether he prefers the Bhutan of his youth or Bhutan now. He says he prefers it now. The man has thirty cows and he likes to wander around and look at his village’s modern buildings. They interview a transgender woman who is loved and accepted by her mother but feels frustrated by all of the things she can’t control. Even a society that so publicly puts the happiness of its citizens to the forefront is not built to accommodate and accept certain people. 

One man’s happiness is derived entirely from being served by his three wives. Another man’s happiness came from his devotion and unity with his one wife, who has now passed on. “I wanted to spend our days chanting mantras as we grew old together,” says the latter, “but it’s impossible now.”

Agent of Happiness is  a film that poses many questions, though the only answer it can give is that happiness is reliable only in its elusiveness. It’s the right answer, I think. There will always be something to chase, something the world tells us we need that we don’t have, something we have lost and cannot regain, something we are denied by forces out of our control. All of us, regardless of place or circumstance, are boats against the current. –Daniel Kirkham

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.