Film Review – Lunana, A Yak in the Classroom

Palace Electric Canberra from 2 June 2022
109 minutes, rated PG

This film is based on the real stories of a teacher in Lunana, Bhutan, and was shot on location with a cast of mainly local inhabitants.

Ugyen (Sherab Dorji, in his feature debut) is a Bhutanese trainee teacher who harbours dreams of moving to Australia to become a singer. When his superiors learn of his plan to cut-short his contract obligations, as punishment he is exiled to the most remote school in the world – located in the tiny village town of Lunana.

After an eight day trek from Ugyen’s home in the capital, he arrives to discover a building with no electricity, no textbooks or teaching supplies and the most basic of living quarters. He wants to quit and go home, but as he learns of the daily hardships his young pupils face, he begins to be transformed through the amazing spiritual strength of the villagers.

This is a touching coming of age and getting of wisdom film. The self-absorbed young character we see at the beginning of the story is transformed by his experience in Lunana. He comes to appreciate not only the people of this remote village with their stoicism, tenacity, gentle manners and respect for education, but also his own grandmother whom he has treated with such disregard.

Nobody from the village tries to force Ugyen into a course of action, but their quiet and subtle offering of choices is potent. His importance to their village children and their future prospects is made very clear – it’s irresistible.

While it is much more than this, the film reflects the experience of many beginning teachers in Australia, especially those sent to remote country postings. No doubt this applies to other professions as well.

It carries broader life lessons, of course, as well, including reflections on the effect of global warming on the life and landscape of wild places.

The modern world’s obsession with technology also comes under the spotlight as Ugyen learns about the vagaries of the electricity supply in Lunana – dependent entirely upon the sun.

Music is a key feature of the film, both in the plot line and thematically. Our relationship with song and the way it reflects our relationships with others and with our environment is poignantly expressed.

The pursuit of dreams regardless of cost gets a final swipe as Uygen leaves the school at the onset of winter to pursue his singing dream, which is ultimately shown up in all its tarnished sadness.

While the film is deeply serious, it doesn’t lack humour. There are many gently funny interactions between the villagers and Ugyen, all of them illuminating for the filmmaker’s messages. It’s a delicate piece of film making and storytelling which I found deeply affecting.

  • Director and writer : Pawo Choyning Dorji (feature debut)
  • Oscar nominated for Best International Feature

Further information

Thanks to Nedco for the opportunity to preview this touching film.