Despite a formulaic and sometimes artificial quality that persists throughout the film, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is elevated by an effective poignancy and visually arresting Bhutan landscapes that it rightly revels in using.
The film follows Ugyen (Sherab Dorji), a disillusioned teacher living in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, who dreams of moving to Australia to become a professional musician, but whose job results in him having to travel to Lunana, a far-off village that is said to harbour the most remote school in the world, and where he is told to teach for a term, until winter. Ugyen is extremely uninterested in going and only acquiesces after pressure from his grandmother and the comfort of the fact that it is only for a couple of months, after which he can continue with his plan to move abroad. In this mindset, he begins his journey to Lunana, disillusioned and uninterested. However, through meeting the people in the village and experiencing the environment, he slowly starts to change his perspective.
Lunana is beautifully shot, and the way director Pawo Choyning Dorji evokes the landscape around Lunana is one of the most emotive things about the film. The gorgeousness of the area around Lunana is another character in itself, and the spirituality of the film comes through that landscape, arguably more than through Ugyen’s journey. That is not to say that Sherab Dorji’s performance is sub-par; in fact, the opposite, merely that in terms of character development, the film suffers a little. The set-up makes it abundantly clear what kind of film this is going to be, and while it hits the right notes a lot of the time, what prevents it from getting to the next level is its ultimate inability to get under the skin of its main character. We learn things about him over the course of the film, but Ugyen remains something of a cookie-cutter personality, a framework from which the film can build around, rather than a key part of that structure.
Luckily, Lunana comes to the rescue. Not only is the environment a true sight to behold, but the people are also wonderful. Warm, layered and exuding life, the villagers are something Ugyen never quite feels: authentic. Dorji used the villagers themselves in the film, and the entirety of the cast are first-time actors, which makes it even more remarkable that they are so good at carrying their performances. This is especially true of the schoolchildren, all of whom seem genuine throughout and whose performances are every bit as brilliant as the adults’. It is a fantastic achievement, and perhaps the crowning glory of the film overall is that Dorji manages to capture such performances on screen. Even the yaks, of which there are a good few, are a delight.
These are the moments where the real poignancy of the film comes out. Their emotions feel real, as do their desires and their beliefs and dreams for the future. Their journey throughout the story, the songs they sing and the stories they tell are all very engaging, amidst the layered texture of a backdrop that could not be more beautiful. The sense of authenticity really contributes to this, which is why it’s a shame when the film’s more artificial moments ruin the effect that had been so intricately crafted up until that point. This comes through the narrative itself and the fact it is so set on hitting certain markers that it forgets what makes the story unique and powerful. It would have been more interesting to delve deeper into the world of Lunana and into Ugyen’s interaction with it and the juxtaposition of his perspective on what he wants to do with his life and how living and teaching in Lunana has changed him.
As it is, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a film that is both moving and a little frustrating. There is enough here to make it a worthwhile and rewarding experience, but not quite enough conviction in its narrative structure to elevate it beyond a formulaic tale set in a very unique place amongst very engaging people.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was screened at Hebden Bridge Film Festival (March 19-21st)