Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is the title that this film gives itself and yet twenty minutes in, the film gives us neither the titular town nor the classroom nor the yak. This isn’t valid from me, and neither is it criticism. But I will say that the film’s first act gives its viewers other entire things and those things have its own rewards. The first act, and the whole film for that matter, is comparable to another film. One that also got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Just like Drive My Car, this film has two male characters inadvertently out-Chad-ing each other.
In Lunana, one of the characters is a city boy, protagonist Ugyen Dorji (Sherhab Dorji), reluctantly trekking to Lunana to teach the village’s children. And the other is Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup), the village guide who can outhike him. The second similarity to Drive is how this film also competently expresses the distance between the capital city and the titular village. There are pit stops along the way. There, the camera capturing Ugyen’s reactions to villages where adults go barefoot so that their children can have shoes.
The director behind Lunana is Pawo Choyning Dorji, and I guess one of the few points I’ll knock off from his film is that he substitutes a few fish out of water archetypes for others. Thankfully, he doesn’t make Ugyen out to be some contemptuous eye rolling urbanite. But I’m not 100% on Ugyen’s lack of preparation neither. In fairness though, no one can ever prepare anyone for any job much less one involving the education of future generations. I’m also probably being too tough on twentysomethings who wake up after 10 but then again I woke up at 9 today. Other people who have criticized the film for disrupting their Oscar predictions. I agree – justice for Canada and Indonesia – but some Oscar predictors need to get over themselves.
Lunana is also a good character study for Ugyen. As the film settles into its second and third acts, there are a lot of scenes where Ugyen and Michen dine with the other villagers. They mostly eat with one of its elders, Asha. The script also gives Ugyen one or two monologues that hit the right emotional tones. For a first time actor, Dorji hits the right notes in more ways than one. Other scenes capture Ugyen in his new home finally preparing lessons for the children. Films about rural areas are usually better at exterior shots. But it’s good to see it taking advantage of how light hits certain indoor spaces in unique ways.
Yes, Lunana is also one of those films where the teacher learns from its students, but I’m willing to let this film use that cliché. As an urbanite, I joke about how I or anyone who lives in the city can’t survive in the mountains. But this Bhutanese film exists as a counterpoint to those beliefs. Anyone can learn and survive if they must. It’s a matter of putting that learning to good use after people end up where they want to be.
There’s a subplot in Lunana involving music and I like how Ugyen can recognize how hard folks songs are. And he learns that through Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), the other half of film’s will they won’t they subplot. Importantly, this film exposes how brain drain damages Bhutan. And that final shot is competently devastating as it expresses that idea. As someone who had to say goodbye this year and might have to say another one soon, this hits different.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom hits TIFF Bell Lightbox on March 18.
- Release Date: 3/18/02022