Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 13th, 2022
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Pawo Choyning Dorji, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.
A feckless young man living in Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu, Ugyen has just one more year of teaching left on his government service before he can take off for Australia, where he hopes all his dreams will come true. Despite the country’s official policy of pursuing “Gross National Happiness” for all its citizens, clearly not everyone is content, as evidenced by Ugyen’s restless desire to leave. A decidedly unmotivated instructor, he is doing no one any favors, much less himself, and his lackluster performance leads the Ministry of Education to reassign him to Lunana, high up in the Himalayas, home of “the most remote school in the world.” Lucky Ugyen, and lucky residents of that gorgeous, if isolated, village. Not really. He doesn’t want to go, and they stand to get nothing in return for their hospitality.
That’s how things start, anyway, in director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s debut feature, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. With a descriptive title like that, who needs an actual movie to follow, right? Well, it’s a good thing there is one, as it proves charming and poignant, and much more than the simple redemption tale it initially promises to be (those can be nice, too, however). We follow Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) as he travels from the city to the provinces and then, leaving roads behind, makes the week-long trek all the way up to 4800 meters (almost 3 miles). With each stop, the director lists both altitude and population (Thimphu is at 2200 meters, or 1.37 miles, with a population of 101,238), emphasizing, with some humor, the sharp change in surroundings. Lunana has but 56 residents, all of whom, it seems, come out to greet their new teacher.
For education is important to them, and they venerate pedagogues as people who “touch the future.” From the village elder down to the smallest child in the rustic school building, everyone treats Ugyen with the utmost respect. Sadly, from the moment he first meets the guides who take him from the end of the road up to Lunana, Ugyen does not reciprocate with the same courtesy. Indeed, he is initially quite rude, seeking refuge in his iPod’s music catalogue, rather than in conservation, all through the climb, commenting disparagingly about everything he sees (fortunately, again with some comedy). The dramatic stage is therefore set for a brutal comeuppance.
Instead, Ugyen’s evolution from callous jerk to dedicated public servant is the result of no great humiliation or loss but rather his own response to the obvious need, and kindness, of the villagers. Despite occasional corniness, this is the movie’s strongest message: revealing just how much we grow in proximity to those who model the best of themselves. True, there is also an attractive local woman, Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), who catches Ugyen’s eye (and ear, as she sings a song that she then offers to teach him), but she is by no means the only catalyst for our hero’s transformation.
And then there is the yak, one of many in and around Lunana. Their droppings are the kindling to the much-needed fire in that cold climate, but they also act as companion animals and sometimes food. Saldon gifts Ugyen her oldest yak, Norbu, so that the newcomer won’t have to climb the slopes for the dung. As cute as Norbu may be, though, it’s the students who take center stage, their efforts to learn something of the world the ultimate motivation for Ugyen to get out of his own self-involved head.
Despite the fine performances from the cast of mostly first-time actors, some of them actually from Lunana, perhaps the ultimate star of the movie is the scenery. Bhutan, once you leave the main metropolitan area, has to be one of the most beautiful countries on Earth, jagged peaks thrusting towards the sky in stunning formation. Complementing this grandeur, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom defies our expectations of how it will end, delivering a bittersweet conclusion befitting the melancholy majesty of the terrain. We may not be happy, but are deeply moved.