Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2022)

March 1st, 2022
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Pawo Choyning Dorji; Cast: Sherab Dorji, Ugyen Norbu, Keiden Lhamo, Kunzeng Wangdi, Tshering Dorji, Sonam Tashi, Pem Zam, Tsheri Zom; Bhutan 2019, 109 min.

A delightful story from Bhutan that sees a vain and self-centred young man deciding to leave his close knit community to forge a career as a singer in Australia.

Ugyen Dorji (S. Dorji) feels misunderstood by his friends and family for wanting to emigrate to Australia, particularly as his job as a teacher is much valued in his hometown of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. During his fifth and final year of the mandatory government service, Dorji’s boss sends him to the remote mountain village of Lunana, eight days by foot and horse from Thimphu, to teach a class of nine primary children.

During the journey Dorji remains detached and hostile towards Michen ((Lhendup), a guide who leads him all the way up the mountains: he never takes his headphones off (until the signal gives out), and is generally unapproachable, refusing to give a ritual offering to the Gods. In the village, he is incensed to discover the outside loos and primitive conditions, and immediately asks to be taken back, but changes his mind, when 12-year old Pem Zam (her real name) the “School Captain” reminds him of his commitments.

Pem Zam’s father is an alcoholic, and her niece Saidon (Gurung) a singer of traditional songs, given as offering to the Gods. Dorji soon becomes a favourite with the children and Asha (Jinpa (Wangdi), the village elder, starts singing again for the first time after the death of his wife. Dorji is enchanted by Saidon who teaches him a melancholic song “Yak Lebi Lhadar”, about a yak herder who mourns the loss of his favourite animal. Saidon also gives Dorji the titular yak named Norbu who takes up residence in the class room. Even though Dorji has given up on the internet, he is adamant to leave the village before winter sets in, telling the villagers that he will not return, but fulfil his dream of a singing career in Sidney, where we watch him performing to a totally disenchanted audience.

In his director debut Pawo Choyning Dorji borrows a reverse storyline from Andrei Konchalovsky’s second feature The first Teacher (1965) that follows a teacher sent from Moscow to a Muslim village where, contrary to Dorji’s experience, the villagers greet him with hostility.

We expect Dorji’s heart to melt – but no such luck. He is fixated on a goal which he has “imported’ from the internet: his dislocation in Australia is just the outcome of a collision between the TV images Dorji has internalised and the reality. Like many others, he is chasing a dream which does not exist.

DoP Jigmet T. Tenzing takes full advantage of the breath-taking beauty of the mountain world, threatened by extinction due to Global Warming – a term the villagers have not heard yet, but are fully aware of the dramatic consequences of climate change. Tenzing, like the director, avoids any sentimentality: although Dorji is a prime example of a person who has buttoned themselves down emotionally to avoid dealing with long term trauma from the past, and possibly the future

When Dorji asks his students the classic question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” one boy tells him his chosen profession is to be a teacher because “he reaches towards the future”. AS

Lunana was shortlisted for the Foreign Feature Films Category of the “Oscars” and had its world premiere at the LFF 2019 in London. Director Pawo Choyning Dorji has since finished his second feature Four Day to the Full Moon in 2022.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom – In cinemas and digital 10th March

Copyright © 2024 Filmuforia