The Movie Waffler New to VOD - LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM | The Movie Waffler


A teacher takes a posting in a remote part of the Himalayas.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Pawo Choyning Dorji

Starring: Sherab Dorji, Ugyen Norbu Lhendup, Kelden Lhamo Gurung, Kunzang Wangdi, Tshering Dorji

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom poster

You've got to hand it to Bhutan. A landlocked sovereignty bordered by southern China and north India, Bhutan defied Tibetan invasion and has consistently maintained a degree of independence from the Empire. As of March 2nd 2023, in the big list of world populations, Bhutan is 159th - a tiny country, really, but this didn't prevent Bhutan becoming the first world-leading nation in its role of vaccinating its population during Covid. The culture is increasingly progressive too, with an absolute monarchy ceding to a parliamentary democracy in 2008. This government even has a guiding policy called Gross National Happiness (GNH) dedicated to the collective cheer and well-being of the population. As a part of this philosophy, in 1999 the restrictions surrounding accessibility to television and film were lifted, despite previous concerns that such entertainments "could erode traditional Bhutanese values." Thus, in The Land of the Thunder Dragon, a nascent film industry began.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom review

I think that in the case of writer/director Pawo Choyning Dorji's Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, an appreciation of cultural context is instructive. In terms of cinema, Bhutan is a young country, with domestically produced films that are open hearted and fizzing with the earnest joy of simply existing. Case in hand Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom concerns Ugyen (Sherab Dorji), a young man who is completing a five-year teacher training course. Ugyen is cheesed off, though. He'd rather go west to Australia and fulfil his dream of becoming a singer. It gets worse when Ugyen is sent by the government to teach in the highly remote, highly traditional and very high up Lunana region, where they make tea out of Yak crap and don't know what toothbrushes are. Ugyen doesn't want to go, but his grandmother encourages him to.

Within these gentle narrative rhythms, will Ugyen learn a thing or two about conventional values and what really matters? Perhaps there will be a mutually attractive potential partner for Ugyen to moon over (Saldon - Kelden Lhamo Gurung) as she throat-sings in stark contrast to Ugyen's poppy guitar stylings. Maybe Ugyen, initially nonplussed at the rustic environment and resourceless classroom, will eventually be won over by the keen little poppits he teaches...

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom review

Although it has been fairly well received in festivals, and shortlisted for last year's Academy Awards, in terms of story arcs and intent, there is nothing especially compelling in Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (apart, perhaps, from its bittersweet ending ). It duly follows the trajectory of comedies such as School of Rock and, a favourite, Nativity!: films where the kitsch outcomes of jaded/reluctant teacher-is-won-over hold little verisimilitude, but which are instead reassuringly cosy in their hyperbolic comedy representations. This more sincere demonstration is really quite lovely at times, but comparatively sober, and lacking in narrative imperative.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom review

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom's soothing action takes place within a stunning landscape, and I imagine that the mountainous sweep of Jigme Tenzing's photography would look superb on a big screen; just as the actuality that most of the cast are genuine highlanders who drink tea made from Yak crap and had no idea what a toothbrush was, too gives the film an appealing authenticity. But such overriding selling points may mean that Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, and its paeans to traditional Bhutanese values, is received as something more akin to a cultural artefact than a wholly satisfying narrative experience. Gentle and warm enough, though, this is a film that will contribute positively to anyone's GNH measure.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2023 movie reviews