In Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) is being trained to be a teacher in his native Thimphu, Bhutan, but he wants to go to Australia to become a singer. He doesn’t feel connected to his country or his people. He then makes a physical journey that will stimulate an emotional journey – to his roots, to his culture, to his purpose.
Lunana was nominated for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film last year. Made almost entirely in Bhutan by debutant Pawo Choyning Dorji, it was the first Bhutanese movie to be nominated in that category. It’s set in Lunana, an unbelievably remote mountain settlement of 56 individuals. It took Dorji and his crew eight days to trek there, with mules to carry all their equipment. In the film, a very reluctant Ugyen must make the same journey when he is sent to teach at the Lunana school.
He’s an unpleasant traveller, grumbling to his indulgent guides, dragging his feet and signalling the end of any interaction by sliding his headphones on. Those cans are symbols of his urban, Westernised existence. But as he approaches Lunana, the batteries die. If he is to forge a connection with the villagers of Lunana, and his students, he must shake off his city trappings.
This Oscar-nomined drama is suffused with a warm glow
One small quibble is that we’re never in any doubt that Ugyen will forge that connection. When he declines to join his guides’ folk singing, saying, “I don’t sing such songs,” you know by the end he will. Still, the sweetness in Dorji’s film and in the performances (especially a delightful young girl named Pem Zam) is unmistakable. There is an affection – for the people, for the animals, and for the land – that suffuses Lunana with a warm glow. Nobody, not even Ugyen, is villified for the choices they make. Indeed, the final scene is a beautiful resolution to Ugyen’s central dilemma: to leave or to stay? Or to find some mix of the two?
In UK cinemas Mar 10.