Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

In Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) hopes to escape the last of his five year commitment to the government as a teacher and instead take off for Australia to be a singer, much to his grandmother’s (Tsheri Zom) dismay.  Annoyed by his attitude, the Education Secretary (Dorji Om) assigns him to a school so remote, one must make a week’s long hike into the Himalayas to get to it.  Absorbed by his phone until electricity becomes a luxury, Ugyen is dismissive of everything on his journey, but there’s something magical in the thin air when he arrives in “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”

Laura's Review: A-

One can only imagine the logistics involved in the feature film debut of writer/director Pawo Choyning Dorji, who shot on location in Lunana using solar powered batteries and locals who had never seen a camera as many of his actors.  The film also had quite the arduous trek to an Oscar nomination, having been submitted first in 2020 but disqualified because the Academy did not formally recognize Bhutan’s national film committee.  “Lunana” came to being because Pawo wanted to explore a global idea of happiness, as Bhutan is frequently considered the happiest country on earth yet its young teachers are quitting their jobs to find fulfillment in big cities around the globe.  It plays to the beats of the influential “Local Hero,” right down to its melancholy last scene, while also championing the value of teachers.  “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is the very definition of a crowd pleaser.

Ugyen initially seems like any other young man starting out in life, clubbing with friends, making plans with a girlfriend, affectionate but a bit exasperated by his grandmother and her old world ways.  Taken out of his natural environment, though, and Ugyen begins to become unlikable, rude to Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup), the kind and solicitous young man who’s traveled with Singye (Tshering Dorji) from Lunana to Gasa to greet him and pick up supplies (‘We heard city people can’t take a shit without toilet paper.’).  Ugyen gripes constantly about the exertion of the journey and is scornful when Michen stops at a mountain pass to offer thanks.  And then, after the entire village of 56 travels two hours to meet him, Ugyen tells Asha Jinpa, the Village Headman (Kunzang Wangdi), that this isn’t for him and he wants to return.

And then, after settling down in his rough lodgings, Ugyen is awoken with a knock at the door.  It is a 9 year-old smiling ear to ear, Pem Zam (Pem Zam), who informs him that she is the ‘class captain’ and, as it is 9 a.m. and school begins at 8:30, she has come to fetch him.  The unwitting charm offensive has begun and will continue when Ugyen is enchanted by a song wafting from the distance.  Pem Zam informs him that it is Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), one of the village’s best singers.   Asha and Michen are pleased to hear Ugyen has changed his mind, Michen setting to the task of building a blackboard.  Ugyen writes to his friend in Thimphu to send school supplies while he learns how to start a fire with yak dung (don’t use the fresh kind!).  After Saldon explains the synergistic relationship between man and yak, along with the story behind the haunting song she sings, Ugyen even learns to appreciate her gift of Norbu, the village’s oldest yak, who comes to live in his classroom.       

One of the greatest gifts of the cinema art is that it allows us to experience lives and environments completely different from our own.  With “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” Pawo Choyning Dorji has accomplished that feat even for his own countrymen.  Just imagine how transporting his film is for the rest of us…

Robin's Review: B+

Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) dreams of leaving the Bhutan capital for Australia and a shining career as a singer. But, he shirks his teaching duties and his superiors, as a lesson, send him to the remotest village they can find. After an arduous eight day journey by foot to the tiny Himalayan town, he finds no electricity, no books and no paper in “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”

When I read the synopsis for “Lunana,” by writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji, the very first thing I thought was “Local Hero (1983),” the magical little stranger-in-a-strange-land film by Bill Forsyth. In that wonderful story, an oil exec (Peter Riegert) is sent to a remote Scottish town to negotiate a deal with its denizens. Along the way, he falls in love with town and its nutty inhabitants but must leave when the job is done.

In “Lunana,” a school teacher with an attitude is sent by his boss to the tiny village-without-electricity (the school does not even have a blackboard) for his last year of mandatory service. To get to the town (population 56), he needs a guide, Michen (Ugyen Dorji), to lead him on the “leisurely” walk that he is assured will be a “journey he wishes never ends.” Eight days later, they are enthusiastically greeted by the entire village, embracing their new teacher.

When he is shown the blackboard-less school, he tells the village elder, Asha (Kunzang Wandi), he cannot teach there. Disappointed, the leader tells his new teacher that he can leave after Michen and the other guide, Singye (Tshering Dorji), rest up for the return trip to civilization. With nothing better to do, he cleans up the school and figures out how to teach his eager-to-learn students. He also meets Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), a beautiful yak-singer who fascinates Ugyen with her haunting song.

Of course, once he sees the village’s positive vibe and the eagerness of his new students, especially class leader Pem Zan (Pem Zan), his heart changes and he throws his energies into teaching. How he goes about his business, including the Yak of the title, comes into play as the story unfolds. In the end, Ugyen came up the mountain a boy, and goes down a man.

Samuel Goldwyn releases "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” on digital platforms on 2/11/22.