You cannot possibly be grouchy about Bhutanese film “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom”, which was Bhutan’s submission to Best International Film Oscar in last year and then garnered a surprise nomination on last Tuesday. While it is pretty plain and simple in terms of story and characters, the movie is packed with a considerable amount of good will and soothing charm in addition to being a fairly good drama movie, and you will find yourself alternatively amused and touched as observing a small real world quite different from ours.
At first, we are introduced to Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji), a young man who has lived with his grandmother in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. While he has worked as a teacher during last four years, Ugyen is not particularly interested in teaching, and he has yearned for going to Australia someday for pursuing his musician career. As a matter of fact, he has already applied for the visa for that, and it seems that he will just have to wait for several more months before the end of his mandatory teaching period.
However, there comes an unexpected situation. During his routine meeting with his director supervisor, Ugyen is notified that he is soon going to be transferred to a small village called Lunana, and he is not so pleased to hear about that for a good reason. Lunana is actually one of the most remote spots in Bhutan, and it will take at least eight days to go there. Furthermore, the village lacks many modern stuffs including Internet, and that means Ugyen will be nearly isolated from the outside world during next several months.
The following sequence shows us how remote Lunana really is. At first, Ugyen takes a bus going to the closest town to Lunana, and he is greeted by two guys from the village after the bus arrives in its destination, but, to his frustration, he now has to walk up to the village during next several days along with these two villagers. When the first day of their long journey is over, they come to stay at a mountainous spot only occupied by one generous family, and this family’s shabby daily life reminds us more of how much this region is separated from our modern world.
When Ugyen finally arrives in Lunana, many villagers including their chief are already waiting for him outside the village, and they are all eager to greet him because they finally get a new teacher to teach their kids after several months. Understandably being aghast at how poor living condition is in the village, Ugyen soon comes to consider leaving the village as soon as possible, but he is going to be stuck in the village during next several days anyway, and he has no choice but to work as a teacher as requested at least for a while.
Of course, he is not so enthusiastic about doing his duty right from his first day, but he cannot possibly say no to those little kids so excited about learning new things from their teacher. Although their classroom does not even have a blackboard or papers and pencils, they are quite ready to be good students, and Ugyen eventually comes to try his best for his little pupils as days slowly go by in the village.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that our disgruntled hero comes to love and care about the village and his students much more than expected. The screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Pawo Choyning Dorji simply has the story and characters leisurely rolling from one episodic moment to another, and the movie lets us gradually immersed more in its tranquil ambience. We are often tickled and fascinated as it vividly observes numerous realistic details including those yaks around the village (You will get some laugh from one of their useful aspects, by the way), and Dorji and his cinematographer Jigme Tenzing did a splendid job of presenting a number of impressive landscape shots on the screen.
Meanwhile, the movie also focuses a bit on the relationship between Ugyen and a young female herder in the village, who kindly sends an old yak to his classroom later in the story. After listening more to her performing folk songs to soothe her yaks, he comes to pay more attention to the village and his students, and, to our little amusement, he takes some active actions for educating his students more. We see how he and several villagers make a blackboard and pieces of chalk for his classroom, and the mood is brightened up more when he later receives a number of useful stuffs for his students’ education as well as their entertainment.
Dorji and his crew members actually shot their film in Lunana, and he just let a group of real villagers, who incidentally had no movie acting experience before, play themselves more or less. Their line delivery feels rather monotonous at first, but we come to sense more of their gentle humanity exuded from their unadorned acting, and their good performances surely bring considerable spirit and personality to the film as Sherab Dorji’s humble lead performance earnestly holds the center as required.
Personally, I value movies which can take us to different worlds and people out there with empathy and understanding, and “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is certainly one of such good films. While it may look pretty modest compared to its fellow Oscar nominees including “Drive My Car” (2021) and “The Worst Person in the World” (2021), this is still a solid piece of work to be admired and savored for mood and details, and I think you should check it out when you have some free time to spend.
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