Movie award season is inherently ephemeral. Even diehard film buffs would be hard pressed to recall all of the winners at this year‘s Oscar ceremony, let alone the nominees, and the nominations for Best International Feature seem to fade from memory the quickest. One little slice of movie nirvana in danger of being soon forgotten is Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, a little jewel of a film from Buhtan.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is about a young man named Ugyen, a schoolteacher living with his grandmother in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. When we first see him, he’s wearing a T-shirt with the words “Gross National Happiness,” referring to the Bhutanese government’s stated goal of satisfaction and fulfillment for all their citizens. Ugyen, however, is far from satisfied, fulfilled or happy. His dream is to leave Bhutan altogether and become a nightclub singer in Australia. But first, he’s ordered to serve the final year of his five-year teaching contract in Lunana, a small village nestled along the Eastern Himalayas completely cut off from modern civilization.
Guided by a villager, Ugyen reluctantly departs. It’s an arduous trek lasting several days. Along the way, he encounters various mountain dwellers, struggles with inappropriate footwear, and gets his first taste of life as a highlander. When he finally arrives at Lunana, he’s dismayed to discover a community of Yak herders and their families living completely off the grid with no electricity or creature comforts. Even though the entire village greets him with reverence, his initial impulse is to leave. But that’s before he meets the eager-to-learn children. The sincerity of his students, who exalt teachers for their ability to “touch the future,” ignite Ugyen’s inspiration, and the austere environment and teaching conditions rouse his resourcefulness, leading to a newfound sense of purpose.
Ugyen’s journey is as much internal as external, and much of it is told without dialog. During the first part of his adventure, he listens to music on headphones from his iPod, deliberately tuning out the world around him. After the batteries die, he awakens to his surroundings, beginning with the voice of a young woman singing. Her name is Saldon, the village leader’s daughter. A pamphlet of Australia that Ugyen carries with him, representing his imagined happy future, becomes something of a spiritual talisman after he writes the lyrics of Saldon’s song onto it, pointing to a possible change of destiny that the deliberately ambiguous ending subtly suggests.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was written, directed and produced by first time filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji. Dorji is a Buddhist, which in retrospect comes as no surprise; the story he tells unfolds like a Buddhist fable for modern times. His simple style of filmmaking takes full advantage of the stunning environments and actual residents of Lunana in a way that feels effortless, creating a contemplative ambience completely devoid of a musical score telling us how to feel. Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a thoroughly enchanting film with an age-old truism at its heart: happiness can be found simply by making oneself useful to others.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski