Set in a remote village in the beautiful mountains of Bhutan, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a charming, photogenic feature debut by writer/director Pawo Choyning Dorji.
High Hopesby Alexa Dalby
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is an enchanting film set high up in the Himalayan glaciers of Bhutan, a country where Gross National Happiness is more important than income. It is supposedly the happiest nation in the world. But is it really? Lovely as the country is, some parts of this Bhutanese/Chinese-coproduced film can seem like subtle, seductive propaganda for Bhutanese traditions, Bhutan’s traditional lifestyle and to encourage contentment with the continuing lack of so-called modern comforts. Is the message of the film intended to pacify urban youth who yearn to leave for what they see as the beckoning opportunities of the outside world and make them content with their lot? It’s still lovely. You decide.
The central character Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) lives amicably with his grandmother (Tsheri Zom) in the capital city of Thimphu and dreams of musical stardom singing in Australia. With a year to go in his five-year mandatory teaching service to the government, he’s focused more on getting his Australian visa than on being a teacher.
The head of education (Dorji Om) realises Ugyen is just waiting for his final year to end so that he can emigrate, so, hoping to motivate him despite his protests, she assigns him to a recently vacated teaching post in Lunana, the most remote village in Bhutan, with no electricity, running water or mobile reception, a population of only 56 and an eight-day trek from the nearest town, straight up to a valley in the mountains.
Two good-hearted guides from the village, yak herders – capable Michen (outstanding Ugyen Norbu Lhendup) and Singye (Tshering Dorji) – and their three packhorses meet Ugyan at the end of the bus route to escort him respectfully upwards on the laborious, long climb on foot to Lunana, camping at night as they go.
Reluctant Ugyen is tuned in to the Western music on his headphones as long as the battery lasts, and never fully present in his beautiful surroundings despite the kindness of his guides – until over time he connects when he learns that singing is an essential part of life in Lunana.
He is welcomed with unexpected respect and warmth as the valued and eagerly anticipated new teacher. The entire village walks two hours out to welcome him. Their leader Asha (Kunzang Wangdi) speaks to them of teachers as people who “touch the future” and contribute to the nation’s guiding principle of Gross National Happiness. It’s touching.
The enthusiasm of class captain Pem Zam (real-life Pem Zam), an irrepressibly beaming girl aged about seven, overcomes Ugyen’s resistance. SPOILER ALERT FOLLOWS His behaviour changes, he becomes committed to the class and the village, and he puts all his efforts into teaching and making the best of the sparse schoolroom and accommodation he has been allocated. When he arrives, he finds the school doesn’t even have a blackboard, so he starts by improvising one so he can teach the youngsters.
Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), a beautiful young woman whose singing across the valley he hears before they meet face-to-face, connects his love of music with the local traditions that survive strongly in the isolated location, and she inspires him to sing without ambition. It’s life-changing.
She teaches him ‘Yak Lebi Lhadar’, a traditional song of the sacred bond between herders and their yaks and she gives him a beloved beast named Norbu (meaning ‘wish-fulfilling jewel’), who becomes a welcome fixture in his nine-student classroom.
It’s a familiar story arc – the unwilling protagonist who sees the light and is reluctantly transformed. But as the drama builds towards a promise of personal change, Ugyen has to decide on his future before winter snow cuts the village off. Should he leave the village he has become a part of to pursue his dream of Australia and what will happen if he does, or should he stay where he has been touched by tradition? You can take the boy out of Bhutan, but can you take Bhutan out of the boy? Does he realise yet that happiness lies within?
Beautifully photographed in extraordinary mountain locations, this poetic and enchanting drama earned Bhutan the country’s first-ever Oscar nomination and gives a fascinating insight into a region largely uncharted on screen. The cast are a mixture of actors and villagers.
The film was shot on location at the world’s most remote school, in the village of Lunana. Due to the lack of facilities, the production of the film was totally dependent on solar-charged batteries.
The director says, “Though extremely challenging, I specifically wanted to shoot the movie in Lunana, inspired by the purity of the lands and the people. I also wanted everyone involved in the production to experience this life-changing journey, so that the authenticity of experience could translate on to the film…
“The major themes of the story are ‘the search for happiness and a sense of belonging’, and these are universal themes that everyone can relate to irrespective of one’s culture and background. However I wanted to present those themes through a medium like Lunana, a world and a people that are so different from not only the rest of the world, but from also Bhutan itself. I wanted to show that even if in such a unique world, the hopes and dreams that connect humanity are the same.”
The debut writer-director, who worked as director Khyentse Norbu’s assistant on Vara: A Blessing, cites a couple of Bhutanese films in the closing credits, clearly sources of inspiration: School Among Glaciers, a 2003 documentary about a teacher who undertakes the journey to Lunana, and Price of Knowledge, a 1999 documentary short about an 11-year-old boy’s hours-long walk to school in rural Bhutan.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom had its world premiere in Locarno, won the Special Mention at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and screened at the BFI London Film Festival. It was submitted as Bhutan’s entry for the Oscars and is the first film from Bhutan to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best International Feature category. It is released on 10 March 2023 in the UK.