Oscar hopeful ‘Lunana’: A yak, a classroom, and a transformative journey

( Unrated ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
"Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is an Oscar nominee from Bhutan for best international feature film. The story follows an urban teacher transferred to a remote village where the children, including class captain Pem Zam (left, as herself), are eager to learn.

Did you know that Bhutan has an official policy of pursuing “gross national happiness” for all its citizens? Or that it mandates an education for every single child? All this and more I found out from the lovely “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” an Oscar nominee for best international feature. It’s about a young schoolteacher who – reluctantly at first, and without his full awareness – discovers happiness where he never thought he’d find it.

As the film opens, Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) has one more year of teaching left in his mandatory five-year commitment to the government. But what he really wants to do is ditch the final year and immigrate to Australia, where he dreams of becoming a pop singing sensation.

Bhutan’s Ministry of Education has other ideas. It assigns him to complete his tenure in the village of Lunana, high up among the receding Himalayan glaciers, where he will preside over what is described as “the most remote school in the world.”

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes happiness is elusive if only one path to it is envisioned. In the Oscar-nominated film “Lunana,” an unexpected assignment offers a teacher new vistas and a deeper understanding of his country.

The arduous weeklong trek from his residence in urban Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, to Lunana – population 56 – convinces the callow, continually complaining Ugyen that he must find a way out. The enthusiastic greeting he receives when he finally arrives there does nothing to dissuade him. Neither the grateful village elders nor the beaming faces of his very young students have much effect on him. Not at first anyway.

The writer-director, Pawo Choyning Dorji, is quite aware that he is playing out a predictable narrative here, but he unfolds it with heartfelt simplicity. The film is, after all, a kind of fable. And it’s by no means all sweetness and light; a necessary strain of sadness wafts through this tale. How could it be otherwise? As much as Ugyen warms to his surroundings, he knows – as do the children and the villagers – that his summer-through-fall sojourn will end when he heads back before the winter storms.

In Ugyen’s new world, however temporary, electricity is at best haphazard, and the main source of kindling is dried yak dung. His classroom – which, yes, houses a yak – is initially without a blackboard and chalk. Teaching tools, left behind by his predecessor, are in scant supply. And yet, as we discover along with Ugyen, these losses are surmountable. The children are headed up by class captain Pem Zam – a 9-year-old charmer from Lunana essentially playing herself – and their hunger for learning is entirely convincing. I wish there had been more scenes of the newly enthusiastic Ugyen tending his flock, but “Lunana” demonstrates, as few films ever have, how inspired schooling can break through even the most abject obstacles.

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Ugyen Dorji (played by Sherab Dorji) discovers few supplies and one large yak in his classroom in the Himalayas in "Lunana."

Not that Lunana is a shantytown exactly. Shot on location, the film is graced with wide mountain vistas, draped in low-hanging clouds, that are so resplendent you can practically inhale them off the screen. The residents, played mostly by locals – many of whom, like their characters, have never traveled outside the village – literally worship their natural surroundings. When Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), a young woman and yak herder who befriends Ugyen, sings out a beatific song, it carries through the hills like a soft prayer. 

Undercutting this romanticism is the belief, voiced by the adults, that, as ravishing as this world can be, it does not hold enough promise for their children. The reason teachers are revered in Lunana is because, in the words of little Pem Zam, they “touch the future.” Parents want their children to be more than Himalayan yak herders. They love them enough to part with them, perhaps forever.

Ugyen’s citified ways and penchant for Western pop culture are not regarded as threats in Lunana. They’re more like a harbinger of new possibilities for a new generation. In the end, the real challenge in this story lies with Ugyen: He realizes that however far he travels from Lunana, its melancholy wonderment will always be inside him. So will the love of its people. Their kindness transforms him.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Lunana” is available in some theaters and via streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, and Apple TV+. It is in Dzongkha with English subtitles and is unrated.

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