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Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom – movie review

Lunana poster

Movie: Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
Released: 2019 

What a gentle and heartwarming movie this is.
Ugyen is a young aspiring singer living with his nagging grandmother in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu. This young and restless urbanite is bored while completing his obligatory five-year teaching contract as mandatory national service to the King. He’s uninspired in his teaching role and dreams of Bondi Beach and the day he can move to Australia, where he intends to develop his singing career.
With one year remaining in his contract, and to re-focus his mind on his teaching obligations, Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) finds himself ‘exiled’ to Lulnana. He’s told this is not just the most remote village school in Bhutan but possibly in the world. To get to this glacial Himalayan village, he has to take a bus to the town of Gasa and then an arduous 8-day trek on foot in difficult mountainous terrain.
Despite the overwhelming reception shown by all 56 inhabitants of this remote village, the rebellious and misplaced young man is initially horrified at the spartan conditions he has to endure for the year ahead. There are no teaching supplies, electricity to charge his iPod or even a blackboard. But he is quickly taken in by the warmth, resilience and spirit of the people who revere him for his teaching and ability to “touch the future”!
He learns about yak farming, how to collect yak dung for starting fires (“you only pick the dried ones”) against the awesome landscape before him. He learns to sing the traditional Yak song from one of the villagers and it is the music that helps him reconnect with the people, their land and what’s important to their lives and their sense of being.
With this movie, writer and director Pawo Choyning Dorji attempts to shed some light on the principle of “gross national happiness” the indicator which the country of Bhutan is notorious for having coined, that drives their development. In a significant scene, the head of the village Asha (Kunzang Wangdi) asks rhetorically why one would leave the happiest country in the world to seek happiness?
Many of the cast, especially the villagers and school children and Norbu the yak, are amateurs playing themselves. And the music soundtrack complements the fine cinematography that captures the majestic scenery of the Bhutanese rural landcape and the vitality and joyful spirit of the people.
It was, for me, a nostalgic trip down memory lane with my Nepalese Langtang Valley trek to the glacial town of Kyangjin Gompa which was a five-day trek away from the nearest bus route.
This is a nominee for Best International Feature Film in this year’s Oscars, and only the second to be film to be nominated from Bhutan. It’s definitely one not to be missed and nicely balances out all the over-produced and highly CGI-ed offerings from Hollywood.
This movie is not for those who can’t manage watching, reading subtitles and listening at the same time.