Living in modern-day Thimphu, Bhutan, Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) dreams of popularity. He’s a singer and musician, and when he takes the stage at the local bar, the two- or three-dozen patrons listen closely and cheer enthusiastically. But they are not enough. Ugyen wants more. He wants to play for hundreds, thousands even, and to find that audience, he’ll have to leave Bhutan—the happiest country on the planet—and head to Australia.
But first, Ugyen has to make a pit stop in Lunana, a small village of yak farmers that sits alongside the glaciers of the Himalayas. Ugyen is a teacher, and Lunana has a small school Ugyen is charged with running ’til the winter snows fall. It’s the most remote school in the Kingdom of Bhutan, which makes it probably the most remote school in the entire world.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is Bhutan’s first film nominated for an Academy Award (Best International Feature). Shot on location and using a handful of amateur actors in their feature debut, writer/director Pawo Choyning Dorji uses the familiar “going native” narrative—Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, Avatar, etc.—to anchor his story. The difference here is that Lunana is free of antagonists. No one in Ugyen’s life stops him from living the way he wants to or needs to; no conflicts of misunderstandings or ego. The only thing standing in the way between true happiness and the characters in Lunana is the realization that the world might not have everything you want.
It’s also refreshing that Ugyen’s presence is not a corrupting force for this small village. Far from it. The villagers welcome Ugyen with the hope that he could educate the children and free them from generations of manual labor. Yes, they are happy in this little corner of the world, but the resources of this remote village are limited. The parents know there are opportunities out there for their children, and Ugyen’s teaching might be able to get them somewhere in between.
Education is important to Pawo. So are numbers. Between the disparity of the two audiences at the beginning and end of the movie are the people of Lunana: 56 in all. And as Ugyen treks to Lunana, Pawo marks each city and village Ugyen and his guides pass-through by providing location, population, and altitude information. Lunana is a movie concerned with people, and for Pawo, the less, the better.
That trek, as picturesque as it is, is the slowest part of Lunana. The heart and soul of the movie lie in the valley of Lunana, and once Ugyen arrives, the story takes off. The villagers all smile, and the children are eager to learn. It looks cold, but it also looks wonderful. Available to rent on most major platforms.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom / ལུང་ནག་ན (2019)
Written and directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji
Produced by Pawo Choyning Dorji, Jia Honglin, Stephanie Lai, Shaokun Xiang
Starring: Sherab Dorji, Ugyen Norbu Lhendup, Kelden Lhamo Gurung, Pema Zam
Samuel Goldwyn Films, Not rated, Running time 110 minutes, Opened in limited release on Jan. 21, 2022.