Wholesome and sweet, Pawo Choyning Dorji’s Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom gives a delightful glimpse into the world of a remote village filled with good performances and stunning landscapes of Bhutan.
Sherab Dorji stars as Ugyen, an unmotivated teacher in his final year of training in Bhutan. Despite the advantage of a government job, Ugyen has no desire to teach and just wants to save enough money to immigrate to Australia and become a singer. His liaison recognizes his laziness and sends him to work as a teacher in Lunana, the most remote village in Bhutan, and maybe the world.
Forced to accept, Ugyen departs in a van to a remote village. Accompanied by Lunana resident Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup), Ugyen has to complete a six-day journey on foot to reach Lunana. Once there, he meets with the village elder Asha (Kunzang Wangdi), a local woman named Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung) who sings on hilltops, and the young class captain Pem Zam (also named Pem Zam). Despite his consternation, the pure hearts of the village attempt to break through to Ugyen as the harsh winter months fast approach.
To the film’s credit, Ugyen is never cruel to the naivety of the villagers. Conversely, the villagers never criticize or judge Ugyen’s reliance on technology or lack of understanding of their simple ways. There is a constant respect given by each party, which makes the entire thing that much more enjoyable to watch.
Just as they both respect each other, both sides are willing to adapt to change. Ugyen obviously doesn’t want to be there, but he isn’t dismissive of the children’s enthusiasm to learn, just as he respects the honor given to him by the villagers. When Ugyen finally warms up and offers to help the villagers, they accept his invitation and welcome any opportunity to make their village and the children’s experience in the classroom that much better as well.
Dorji is an easy protagonist to root for. Handsome and pleasant, his lack of motivation does not translate to his lack of talent. When he pushes himself, he reveals further depth without pushing too hard. His easy chemistry with all cast members endears him further in the audience’s good graces.
Lhendup doesn’t have much to do, but is a welcome sight each time he appears. Wangdi turns what otherwise would be a stock “leader” character and dodges every convention. Gurung does the same as an assumed love interest, eschewing the romance for something more meaningful. Pem Zam is a breath of sunshine each time she appears with screen confidence and good nature.
Visually, the film has a geographical advantage. In order to portray a rural mountain village, the filmmakers just went to a rural mountain village. The snow-capped mountains, grassy valleys, and overcast skies provide a beautiful backdrop. Everything is brightly lit and easy to see. And yes, a yak does end up in the classroom.
While no means revolutionary, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a sweet and wholesome look at how the kindness and respect of a remote town can crack the most unmotivated and cynical exterior. It was delightful.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is available to watch on-demand here