Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Bhutan, 2019) [NYAFF 2020]

A perception exist that Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness philosophy has made the country one of “the happiest places in the world,” but the reality is that an increasing number of young people are leaving the country to seek happiness elsewhere. This is the topic of Pawo Choyning Dorji’s latest project Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, a film about a young man’s elusive quest for happiness. Appealing to a universal sensibility, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a film that greatly elevates Bhutanese cinema, even if its ideas are not entirely original.

Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is a civil servant working as an elementary school teacher for the government. Despite having a position that many others would covet, Ugyen is not happy. He’s applied for a visa to Australia where he hopes to become a singer. However, a new work assignment puts a wrench in his plans and forces him to postpone the departure. Despite his best efforts to get out of the assignment, Ugyen is sent to teach in Lunana, the remotest village in the country, where he must live for 6 months. He knows it’s a tough transition, and immediately upon arrival he demands to be taken back. It takes only a few days spent with the village’s children to change his mind and warm him towards finishing his assignment in Lunana.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a typical “fish out of water, big city boy goes to the countryside and finds his true way” kind of story with all the tropes befitting the genre. The filmmakers make no effort to escape this formula, as it shows in Ugyen’s very predictable transformation throughout his stay in Lunana. The film does stand out in a few key details, however, most notably through its Bhutanese setting which is unique in the western scene. The protagonist, Ugyen, is very much a person who does not want to stay in Bhutan, or at least the modernized part of it that he’s known all his life. His temporary assignment at the “remotest school on earth” is meant to showcase an alternate path to happiness that Ugyen, and perhaps many of the film’s Bhutanese viewers, would not normally consider. For many developing countries in the process of industrialization and modernization, it may seem as though there’s only one path forward, a path that often involves shedding away part of one’s national identity. In addition to discovering a way of life that he enjoys in Lunana, Ugyen also rediscovers a part of his national identity.

At the same time, I can’t help but be skeptical of such overly-romanticized portrayals of the countryside – another commonly used trope in these types of films, one that is, ironically, turned on its head in the Australian new wave film, Wake in Fright (1971). Having lived in several such places myself, they’re never as idyllic and conflict-free as they are often portrayed in their cinematic counterparts. The truth is, places like Lunana are far from perfect, fraught with problems and conflicts that make life difficult for their inhabitants. The chances that a city dweller like Ugyen could permanently reside in a place like Lunana are slim (he was, after all, a little more than a tourist there). In the director’s defense, the film never explicitly makes that point, though it could have spent a little more time showing us the struggles that the villagers may face in their daily lives.

The film’s technical achievements are perhaps even more interesting than its subject matter. Shot entirely on solar powered equipment in middle of the electricity-free Himalayas, the filmmakers knew how to take advantage of the stunning landscapes surrounding Lunana. Some of the panorama shots are so inspiring that they make you want to grab your best hiking boots (better than the ones Ugyen used) and seek the place out. The director also made use of local talent, hiring some of the villagers to be in the movie – an impressive feat considering that they were not only untrained actors, but some of them had never seen a film before in their lives.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom loses a few points for lack of originality, but it is nevertheless a worthy entry from an emerging player in the international cinematic scene. I sincerely hope we see more films from Bhutan in future festivals worldwide.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is streaming as part of the New York Asian Film Festival which runs from August 28 to September 12.