Many screen dramas involving the give-and-take within a classroom constitute a romantic subgenre, emotions gradually unclenching on at least one side of the teacher-student equation. Often the change of heart, à la To Sir, With Love, belongs to both the kids and their instructor. Director-screenwriter Pawo Choyning Dorji’s assured and delight-filled first feature puts a winning spin on that familiar setup, zeroing in on the learning curve of the teacher, a Bhutanese city boy who’s sent to what’s billed as the most remote school on the planet.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
A charming spin on a classic setup.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom captures a poetic sense of place and character as it follows reluctant young teacher Ugyen (a terrific Sherab Dorji, leading an excellent cast of screen first-timers) to a location where electricity is spotty, Wi-Fi nonexistent, and the clouds seemingly within reach. (Like the movie’s central character, the filmmakers had to forgo many modern creature comforts in the Himalayan village of Lunana, and the production depended entirely on solar energy.) Dorji and cinematographer Jigme T. Tenzing are keenly attuned to the cathartic power of the unspoiled setting; the visuals reflect Ugyen’s awakening without overstating it.
The 2019 feature is the first from Bhutan to be nominated for an Oscar, tapped in the international feature film category on its second try (it was disqualified on a technicality after its first attempt because Bhutan had not established an Academy-approved selection committee). The writer-director, who worked as helmer 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. Building upon a strong nonfiction tradition, Lunana puts Bhutan on the international map for narrative filmmaking.
Ugyen, who lives with his grandmother (Tsheri Zom) in the capital city of Thimphu, dreams of musical stardom in Australia. With a year to go in his five-year mandatory service to the government, he’s focused more on acquiring the coveted visa than on his position as a teacher. In the meantime, he croons Creedence Clearwater Revival at a local bar. Grandma is worried about him, his friend Tandin (Sonam Tashi) doesn’t understand why he wants to leave a good government job, and his boss (Dorji Om) claims she’s never seen anyone less motivated. To snap him to attention, she assigns him to a recently vacated post in Lunana, population 56 and an eight-day trek away. His first response is a pathetic attempt to beg off the relocation with the claim of “altitude problems.”
Much to his dismay, the altitude climbs steadily and the population drops precipitously as Ugyen follows his two guides, yak herders Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup, a standout) and Singye (Tshering Dorji), and their three packhorses into the mountains. Wearing his headphones as long as the connectivity holds out, he’s a model of contemporary disconnection, tuned inward and never fully present in his surroundings. In his offhand way he’s discourteous to his guides, dismissing their traditional foods and customs. But their singing around the campfire one night ignites the tiniest suggestion of a spark for the aspiring musician, who soon learns that singing is an essential part of life in Lunana.
Such surprises arrive continually, expressions of quiet warmth and profound respect meeting Ugyen at every turn. The entire village walks two hours to welcome him when he first approaches Lunana. Their soft-spoken, forward-looking leader, Asha (Kunzang Wangdi), has instilled in them a deep respect for teachers as people who “touch the future” and contribute to the nation’s guiding principle of Gross National Happiness.
The class captain (Pem Zam), a beaming girl of about 7 with an irresistible smile and a sunniness that belies a troubled home life, proves critical in melting Ugyen’s resistance. But it’s Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), a young woman whose singing he hears before they meet face-to-face, who really schools him, connecting the dots between his love of music and the local folkways.
They sit together on a mountainside and, at his request, she teaches him “Yak Lebi Lhadar,” a song expressing the sacred bond between herders and their yaks. She gifts him the title bovine, a beloved beast named Norbu (“wish-fulfilling jewel”) who becomes a welcome fixture in the nine-student classroom. Above all, Saldon inspires Ugyen to sing without agenda or ambition. Soon his prized Australia brochure has been repurposed as a place to jot down the lyrics he’s learning.
The basic trajectory of Lunana, with its protagonist’s deepening joy and newfound connection, may be familiar. But Dorji avoids predictable turns, instead building the drama toward an affecting tangle of feelings and an open-ended promise of transformation.