Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom with his teacher

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom Review – Happy Norbu

If you thought it took forever for the titular Death on the Nile to happen, just wait and see how long it takes for the yak to appear in the classroom. Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a surprise Oscar nominee for Best International Feature this year. The Bhutanese drama is a visually appealing ditty. However, it’s also very, very slow, if languid in the pleasantly enveloping nature of slow cinema. Directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji, Lunana is conventional feel good fare. There’s not a lot to Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, but there is something comforting in its pastoral charm and simplicity. It’s sweet, safe, and sumptuous.

A Yak in the Classroom observes Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji), a young teacher and dreamer. Ugyen aspires to move to Australia and become a singer. Why the Bhutanese lad dreams of the Land Down Under isn’t clear. Lunana is one of those movies, however, where people just sleep while holding a travel brochure for Australia. Ugyen’s plans are thwarted, though, when he’s assigned to a teaching post in Lunana. In terms of the village’s remoteness, it’s about as far from the city as Australia is. Ugyen begrudgingly sets forth on a long journey up the mountains to tough it out for one last post.

 

Such a Long Journey

The first act of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom charts Ugyen’s journey to the village. Subtitles offer signposts noting how far Ugyen treks to the end of the world. Cards indicate the ascending altitudes and descending populations. Lunana houses only 56 people, but has a large population compared to villages through which Ugyen passes.

Much of the trek is by foot and Dorji lets the long walk accentuate the fish-out-of-water scenario. Ugyen has all the finest gear while his local guides hike in cheap rubber boots, or walk barefoot. He clacks away on his phone while they attempt pleasant conversation. He wears his headphones non-stop and listens to cheesy pop tunes instead of finding harmony with his new neighbours. The headphones are obvious symbols for Ugyen’s plugged-in City Boy ways. The film can’t quite escape urban-rural/modernity-tradition clichés, but there is something undeniably appealing about the way it inspires one to slow down and give pause.

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As Ugyen arrives at his classroom, which doesn’t even have a blackboard, he begins his own re-education. A Yak in the Classroom reflects upon Bhutan’s index of “Gross National Happiness,” which measures success over materialism. The families of Lunana have little, but they thrive with simple pleasures. Ugyen just learns the hard way that one doesn’t harvest fresh yak patties to fuel the stove.

 

Norbu, the Happiest Yak

Music also fuels Ugyen during his time in Lunana. He lacks electricity and therefore can’t charge his iPod, so he learns the songs of the locals. In particular, he takes a liking to their yak-herding tune. The song strikes a special chord when Ugyen hears it flow from Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), a young woman in the village. She teaches him the tune and it evokes a certain tranquility that Ugyen can’t find elsewhere.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom conjures a true sense of serenity as Ugyen adapts to the pace of the village. Surrounded by the picturesque Himalayas, Lunana seems especially small. The mountains’ grandeur invites intimacy, though, and Ugyen connects with his students and neighbours in ways that surprise him. Dorji’s understated performance observes Ugyen’s evolution, like a sullen teen who grows into an adult. It’s a portrait of someone who truly comes to understand happiness.

So too is the image of Norbu, the yak that contentedly munches on grass during Ugyen’s lessons. There’s a twinkle on Norbu’s eye as he eats without care. They’re kindred spirits, Ugyen and Norbu, as they find rewards in simple pleasures. Cinephiles might also appreciate this exercise in simplicity.

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Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is now in digital release.

 



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