Lunana: A Yak In The Classroom – Review. By Joe Muldoon.
Amongst the burgeoning film scenes in world cinema is that of Bhutan, whose first film was only released in 1989. First-time director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s heartwarming Dzongkha-language drama Lunana: A Yak In The Classroom was the first Bhutanese film to be given an Best International Oscar nomination, but had the rotten luck of being pitted against the exceptional Drive My Car and The Worst Person In The World. To my great shame, this is the first (though certainly not last) Bhutanese film I’ve ever watched, and there couldn’t be a better endorsement of Bhutanese cinema than this.
For the vast majority of cast members, this was their debut role, with many of the villagers never having even seen a film or camera before. This debut status applies to the film’s lead, Sherab Dorji, who plays Ugyen, an aspiring singer hoping to move to Australia. Approaching the final year of his mandatory 5-year teacher training (a job he dislikes), Ugyen is assigned to teach in the mountain village of Lunana, host to one of the most remote schools in the world.
With the help of village guide yak herders, Ugyen embarks on the 8-day hike to the mountainous village, though immediately regrets his acceptance of the teaching post, being appalled by the condition of the few resources they have. The villagers are positively ecstatic to host him, glad to finally continue their education.
The following day, Ugyen is awoken by Pem Zam (the class captain of his cohort), who informs him that he’s 30 minutes late to school, and that his pupils are all eagerly awaiting his arrival at the classroom. The reluctant teacher has an epiphany after experiencing the deep affection shown by the small class, with one of the pupils declaring his aspiration to become a teacher like Ugyen because it’s an opportunity to ‘guide one to the right path’. He decides to stay on to teach the children, much to the villagers’ delight, and gradually starts to improve their resources, his guide Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup) constructing a makeshift blackboard for him, and his friends sending classroom supplies.
Quickly becoming the children’s favourite government-allocated teacher, Ugyen finds his place in the classroom and in the village itself, immersing himself in their customs. The exploration into Bhutanese culture is utterly fascinating, especially its focus on traditional music.
Perhaps most notable amongst all performances is that of Kelden Lhamo Gurung, who plays Saldon, a young woman who spends a great deal of her time sat atop a hill, tunefully singing a beautiful traditional song. For an almost-entirely first-time cast, the acting is genuinely impressive, and audiences would likely be unable to tell, if unaware of the fact before watching.
Incredibly dazzling is the cinematography, which does a marvellous job of capturing the breathtaking scenery of the majestic Bhutanese highlands. Lunana: A Yak In The Classroom is a wonderfully warm and simple tale, and one which takes great pride in its native culture, working as an excellent ambassador of Bhutan. Its overt patriotism avoids becoming obnoxious, instead being used to gently communicate that the grass isn’t necessarily greener in more developed countries, and that sometimes, simple indigenous home comforts are all one needs.
By Joe Muldoon
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