Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

COMIC DRAMA; 1hr 49min (Dzongkha with subtitles)

STARRING: Sherab Dorji, Ugyen Norbu Lhendup

Class action: Dorji and Norbu

Four years into his five-year, government-mandated teaching contract, Bhutanese city slicker Ugyen (Dorji) has decided the three R’s aren’t his bag. Begging to differ, the authorities transfer him for a 12-month stint in the most remote school in Bhutan — if not the world. Ugyen’s dream of an Australian singing career is receding by the day but rules are rules, so up, up, up he trundles by bus to Gasa (population 448, altitude 2,800 metres). From there it’s more of same on foot for six days to the village of Lunana (population 56, altitude 4,800 metres) where its latest visitor does not want to be.


Although the country is lush and lovely with mountains carved from majesty, Ugyen is stubbornly underwhelmed, plugged into his music until the power runs out in a bare-bones remoteness that is the final straw. But so hard to resist are his nine young students with their open hearts and wide, trusting eyes and so embracing is the generosity of everyone he encounters — with the possible exception of one salty wife, who, in an echo of exasperated wives everywhere, dismisses her amiable, yak-herder husband (Lhendup) as “this big body with an empty head” — that Ugyen stays put and rediscovers himself.


It’s a particular blessing that the artless charm of writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s personally resonant first feature has scooped awards on the festival circuit: for one thing, its honest-to-goodness cast members are not professional actors and hadn’t so much as watched a movie. Then, too, any movie shot for the relative song of $300,000 in which a teacher shares his classroom with a placidly munching yak surely has to be worth a look right there.


About that yak, aka Norbu, the oldest in the village. To the people of Lunana, the yak is a vital source of survival, the bond between beasts and herders as close as family. In this tiny, isolated crucible where so much is contained in so little, every aspect of the whole has its own sacred meaning.