Lunana is a remote village in Bhutan, a small country in the Eastern Himalayas. It is also the most remote village in the world, sitting at an altitude of 4,800 metres and a tiny population of 56. With solar panels as the only source of power, no connection to the outside world, and a heavy reliance on mother nature itself to survive, there is certainly nothing glamorous about the place. It is also the setting of Bhutan’s first Academy Award-nominated feature film, LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM.
Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) lives in the capital city of Bhutan with his grandmother (Tsheri Zom), and has a contract as a teacher working for the government. However, he is unmotivated in his profession and dreams of obtaining a visa to go to Australia and become a singer. Before he is able to do that, his government employers send him to Lunana to complete his teaching contract. This is no easy adjustment for Ugyen, who lives a Westernised and modern life in the city. Only accessible by horse and foot, the trek up to the village takes eight days and is physically gruelling. Ugyen is completely out of his element, with no wi-fi or electricity, limited supplies and a tiny classroom that doesn’t even have a blackboard.
Ugyen finds himself wanting to quit and go home, but the kind-hearted villagers welcome him with open arms, and the children are more than eager to learn - even knocking on his door when he doesn’t show up to class on time. Ugyen’s cynical and narrow-minded attitudes are challenged when he connects with his students and learns about their hardships. He begins to embrace and admire the spirituality of the villagers, and understand the importance of what he’s doing.
The film moves at a slow and steady pace in a way that is almost peaceful. Much like Ugyen, the audience is able to escape the rush and chaos of mainstream life, taking a moment to be still. Director Pawo Choyning Dorji has crafted a meditative experience, particularly through the film’s breathtaking cinematography. Actually shot in Lunana, the sweeping mountains, rich greenery and wispy clouds almost touching the ground are a sight to behold. Music also plays a key part in the film and adds to this sentiment, as Ugyen learns a traditional song from the village and connects with his students through the medium.
Through the protagonist’s struggles, Dorji is able to highlight the difference between city and rural life. As a result, there are some timely and touching messages about the beauty of slowing down and connecting to nature and spirituality. The villagers, particularly the children, are humbling to watch due to their resourcefulness and gratitude. It’s always satisfying to see a story that demonstrates the power of education and learning, and how so many young people take it for granted. What’s also astounding is the villagers in the film are real life highlanders. They had never acted, seen a movie or camera, or even used toothpaste - which they are taught to do in one particular scene.
As mentioned, the film was shot in the real-life remote village, which is another impressive feat within itself. Getting equipment and a whole crew up to that altitude certainly wouldn’t have been a walk in the park, as well as making a feature film with limited resources and no electricity.
LUNANA is an extraordinarily simple film, which also may be its downfall. While there’s a lot to admire and the relaxed pace suits the themes present, it’s not always enough to hold the audience’s attention. The film does what it intends to do, but never feels like it goes above and beyond, which is what it needs to leave a lasting emotional impact. Some more definitive conflict and turning points, especially with our main character, could have made this something really special and more memorable.
LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM is a sweet film with good intentions. However, rather than its plot, viewers will be touched by the window into a little-known culture and the fantastical wonder of Bhutan’s natural beauty.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is now playing in selected cinemas.