Review: Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2019)

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Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2019)

Directed by: Pawo Choyning Dorji | 110 minutes | drama, family | Actors: Sherab Dorji, Ugyen Norbu Lhendup, Kelden Lhamo Gurung, Pem Zam, Sangay Lham, Chimi Dem, Tashi Dema, Dophu, Tshering Dorji, Art Finch, Dorji Om, Tandin Sonam, Sonam Tashi, Kunzang Wangdi, Tshering Zangmo, Tsheri Zom

Bhutan, the small Asian mountain country sandwiched between superpowers China and India, has made its exclusivity its trademark. It wants to know little about its neighboring countries. And tourists don’t like to be welcomed either. Whoever wants to enter the authentic country, literally pays the price for it. Only for a minimum daily contribution of 200 dollars per person, the borders open to the willing traveler. The less fortunate holidaymaker can only dream of the colorful temples, evergreen rice fields and the almost countless panoramas.

The country is therefore somewhat enigmatic. This is reinforced by the country’s absence from the public domain. For example, only sparsely appear films that were made or set in the Asian country. Social film network Letterboxd has a meager 34 titles that have their origin in Bhutan. There may be more, but the question is whether those films ever reached our screen. Perhaps ‘Lunana, A Yak in the Classroom’, as the film’s full name is, might be able to do something about that inscrutability. With an Oscar nomination, for best foreign film, it is already off to a good start.

‘Lunana’ begins in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. It is the home of Ugyen Dorji, a rather unmotivated schoolmaster, to say the least. He dreams of a life as a singer in modern Australia. While waiting for a visa, he remains calm but uninterested in keeping up with the all-important government system. Until, from above, it is decided to send Ugyen to the distant mountain village of Lunana, which is said to be home to the most remote school in the world, to hone his work ethic. The twenty-something can do nothing but agree.

After a bus journey and a three-day hike, leaving behind both his dreams and modern life, Ugyen arrives at his inhospitable end point. The culture shock is great. Compared to the relatively prosperous capital, Lunana is very poor. The electricity only works sporadically. Many adults struggle with alcohol. In winter, when the cold takes over, the village is practically locked. Ugyen can’t get used to it at first, but eventually sees that the children have no future without him. Reluctantly, he goes to work with them.

The clash between modern lifestyles and old-fashioned traditions is not taken too seriously. In fact, every now and then ‘Lunana’ works well for the laughter muscles. When Ugyen learns how to make a fire with the excrement of a yak, an Asian bovine species, his new fellow villagers arrange for a specimen to be placed in his classroom. Conversely, the teacher teaches his students about the pleasures of brushing their teeth. It produces comical images, precisely because these contrasts are played with in this way.

There is also a lot to enjoy cinematically elsewhere. The more than beautiful views, full of green grass plains, white-topped mountains and azure blue skies are never boring. Tourist attractions, or the places that the country usually wants visitors to see, remain out of the picture. Even indoor rooms, precisely the places that generally remain hidden, are never far away from the camera. Due to the lack of artificial light, due to the shortage of electricity, a beautiful image subtlety is created that strengthens the emotions of the characters in a powerful way.

In the end, despite the emphatic symbolism, the greatest contradictions remain. Perhaps that says something about the transition in which the country finds itself, from old to new, under the line ‘Lunana’ therefore remains stuck in ambiguity. The real Bhutan therefore remains shrouded in mystery.

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