If anyone doubts that people do burst out into song in their everyday lives, just as in musicals, you need to experience “Lunana: A Yak in a Classroom.” Don’t worry. Until Disney decides to do a remake of this charming, beautifully shot film, the titular yak doesn’t sing and he doesn’t talk. He does provide something necessary to life in this remote village: dung.
Lunana is a remote village in Bhutan, a country on the eastern edge of the Himalayas. The Buddhist kingdom is between India and China. The official language is Dzongkha. Listening to it, I thought it sounded like Korean. Remote as it is, Bhutan is influenced by English. You hear it in phrases such as “global warming” and later in the lessons the teacher of the titular classroom.
The teacher, Ugyen (Sherab Dorji), is an aspiring singer. He has few other aspirations; he seems to have begrudgingly enrolled in a teaching course to please his grandmother (Tsheri Zom). He’d rather be playing his acoustic guitar and singing old American songs. In America, you’re thinking there are many people, possibly too many people who want to sing old songs, but is that really a profession? This attractive young man seems to have his hopes focused on Australia. I’ve never been there, but I have also wanted to go there–mostly because of opal mines, kangaroos and koalas. I’d never think that would be the place to launch my singing career. I’m trying TikTok, but my aspirations are extremely limited.
Having completed four of his five-year teaching program, Ugyen Dorji needs to actually do some teaching in order to finish his program. He draws the assignment of Lunana. You think your walk to school was long, Ugyen’s is longer–seven days and most of it uphill. His guide Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup) doesn’t initially tell him that because he doesn’t want to discourage him. The whole small village turns out to greet Ugyen, but he sees his accommodations and is shocked by the primitive simplicity of his surroundings, missing the beauty of the green mountains and the blue skies. The next morning, he oversleeps. The class captain Pem Zam (Pem Zam) wakes him up. After seeing all they have to work with, Ugyen becomes determined to improve their lessons.
To keep warm, with little access to wood due to the high elevation, the villagers use yak dung to build fires. While gathering dung, he meets Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), the daughter of the village leader Asha Jinpa (Kunzang Wangdi). Saldon sings a song to the yak called, “Yak Lebi Lhadar.” The song was written by a villager who had to kill his favorite yak for the good of the village. Saldon gives Ugyen the titular yak, Norbu. Norbu is old and in order to keep the yak warm, the yak ends up living in the classroom.
The school teacher accommodations are not able to withstand the harsh winters and teachers always leave before the winter snows cover the seven-day walk to civilization. Most teachers leave and never return. Ugyen also intends to leave and fulfill his dream of moving to Australia, but the children hope he’ll return. Teachers have the ability to “touch the future” and this one has touched their hearts.
“Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is beautifully shot. If you can stand the cold and a seven-days walk, you’ll be enticed by the majestic images. The acting is very natural and totally believable. The eyes of young Pem Zam are both hopeful and haunting. Her story isn’t a happy one, but you can see the possibilities opened by Ugyen. “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” made its world premiere at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival. This lovely film won Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Film and Best of the Fest at the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival. It’s a startlingly wonderful film for a first-time director and writer Pawo Choyning Dorji. If it doesn’t get an Oscar, one hopes this won’t be the last time Pawo Choyning Dorji brings tales of Bhutan and Asia to the world.