Lunana: A Yak In The Classoom (2019)

PAWO CHOYNING DORJI

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

/, 2019. , . Screenplay by Pawo Choyning Dorji. Cinematography by . Produced by Pawo Choyning Dorji, , , . Production Design by . Film Editing by .

Big-city boy Ugyen lives with his grandmother in Thimphu and gives very little attention to his mandatory government service, contracted to work as a teacher but fixated on his dream of moving to Australia and starting a new life there. His employer reminds him that he still has one more year before he is free to follow his own goals, and she is sick and tired of his poor performance in the classroom, punishing him with an impossible assignment that he has no choice but to accept: the village of Lunana needs a schoolteacher, and he must take the bus to the terminal outpost at Gasa before an eight-day trek by foot to what is not just the most remote school in Bhutan but, possibly, the most remote place in the world.

Ugyen keeps his grumbling to a minimum as he is accompanied by gently friendly villagers on the lengthy journey, then arrives in Lunana and finds himself in a freezing cold place where time seems to have turned back the centuries. The electricity can never be counted on and the school has no blackboard, but the yak-herding villagers are all very kind and their children infectiously charming. Despite wanting to leave almost upon arrival, Ugyen undergoes a spiritual awakening thanks to the open-hearted devotion of his charges, the instant friendliness of his neighbours and the sound of a beautiful woman singing in the distance who soon turns into a friend. Then there is the animal of the title, a gift named Norbu that Ugyen is given to help him stay warm (yak dung burns much better than paper, and having the quietly friendly presence of Norbu in the schoolhouse means not having to climb the mountainsides to collect his droppings).

If the description of this low-key charmer sounds like a mawkish combination of The King and I, Not One Less and Lost Horizon, that’s probably because there’s no hiding the fact that its plot has nothing new to offer the seasoned feel-good film lover, you know from the moment that Ugyen undergoes his first Captains Courageous-level challenge of wading through days of mud that he’ll eventually be transformed by the simpler life and cleaner air. Your ability to see it all coming doesn’t dampen the pleasure of watching it, though, because director Pawo Choyning Dorji makes you feel like you’re smelling that cleaner air too, bringing out irresistible performances from his mostly non-professional cast of villagers and making sure that Ugyen’s experience has a reserved wisdom to it that never feels like it’s beating you over the head.

By simply allowing the main character to appreciate his surroundings without forcing him to overtly define what it all means, Dorji creates an experience that sinks somewhere deep inside you, and the emotion it inspires will remain with you long after it is over.

Academy Award Nomination: Best International Feature Film

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