LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Pawo Choyning Dorji

Stars: Sherab Dorji, Kelden Lhamo Gurung, Kunzang Wangdi, Tsheri Zom, Pem Zan.

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We’ve had lots of films about dedicated and inspiring teachers who make a difference and change the lives of their students (Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Stand And Deliver, etc), but this charming little drama from Bhutan inverts the usual tropes of this rich subgenre. This is the first film from the small country nestled in the Himalayan mountains to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. This deceptively simple little film also gives us an insight in the culture and traditions and the people of Bhutan, an area of the world that few audiences will ever experience outside of a cinema. 

Ugyen (played by Sherab Dorji in his film debut) is an unhappy teacher reluctantly serving out the fourth year of his five-year contract with the Ministry of Education. He is bored, and dreams of migrating to Australia and its sunny climes and beaches to become a singer. His grandmother (Tsheri Zom) however keeps insisting that being a teacher is the most important and rewarding job he will ever find. 

But the Minister sends him on a three-month contract to teach in Lunana, the most remote village in the mountainous country, with a population of just 56. The village is a six-day hike from the nearest town, and there is no electricity, no running water, no television or internet, and most of the residents know little of the world outside. But they warmly welcome him into their community. They revere teachers as they believe that “a teacher touches the future.” At first Ugyen struggles to adapt to the slow pace of life. Uygen is initially unhappy with his new assignment until he starts to interact with the local children and the village elders. But in teaching his small handful of students, including the optimistic and helpful class captain Pem Zan, who are eager to learn, he rediscovers his lost passion for teaching.  

A local yak, named Norbu, becomes an essential classroom tool as its dung provides the necessary fuel to heat the classroom. Ugyen also forms a strong friendship with the alluring Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), who shares with him a special song in celebration of the yak. 

Most of the cast, in particular the children, have never acted before and their performances have an unhurried and natural quality which adds to the experience. Dorji’s direction is unhurried and leisurely and matches the rhythms and pace of daily life in the village. 

Dorji’s performance is good, and he makes for an endearing protagonist, and Kunzang Wangdi is also solid as Asha, the village’s wise leader and elder. 

Lunana: A Yak In The Classroom is the debut feature film for writer/director Pawo Choyning Dorji, the son of a Bhutanese diplomat and who was educated in the US. He also worked as a photographer and worked as an assistant to filmmaker Kyentse Norbu on his feature film Vara: A Blessing. The film has been shot on location in the remote village of Lunana itself, and cinematographer Jigme Tenzing (Supermonk, etc), who captures the natural beauty of the village and the mountains and gives us some breathtaking imagery. Because of the remote location the film was shot on digital camera using mainly solar power. 

Lunana: A Yak In The Classroom demonstrates the importance of community and connection, a wonderful and important message that we need to be reminded of in this post-pandemic world. 

★★★☆ 

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