Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

A 109 minutes of my life I gladly gave away.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
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5 years late to the movie review but here I am writing my thoughts on this 2019 Bhutanese film titled Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.

Filmed in a real location as named in the movie title and a directorial debut of a local Bhutanese, Pawo Choyning Dorji, it is a little more than the average teacher drama film.

Let's begin by what I consider an average teacher drama film. 1) A typical young teacher coming to a low-performing or remote or rowdy school; 2) said teacher trying hard to overcome challenges of dealing with unmotivated kids; 3) teacher succeeds and students are touched, so they all finally can start learning something in class; 4) tear-jerker ending with either the teacher needing to leave the school OR they all achieve something glorious as the underdog.

Don't get me wrong, I still love all the teacher drama film and yes, they still make me cry.

However, I love the authenticity and the adaptation made to the film while keeping to the director's vision and message of the film. It hit different. These are the reasons why I think it is more than the average teacher film.*There may be SPOILERS below, so be forewarned if you are intending to watch the film without any expectations.

1) It hinted at not just educational and socio-economic issue but also environmental issues

The director saw this as a chance of doing a film while filming a documentary. He even included information of the population and the altitude of each city and village they were filming in, which I thought was a very cute touch. This blurred the lines between a drama film and a documentary.

Bracing through the hardship of filming at the utmost remotest village in Bhutan, they were able to capture among the most scenic educator's film I've watched. The actors blatantly talks about the beauty of nature while also mentioning the changes across the years and their worry of fauna losing their habitats and becoming extinct.

"These mountains used to be covered in snow all year round. It is where the mystical snow lions live. Now that there is no more snow, I fear the snow lions will disappear too."

The film is filled with songs by yak herders which was sang with the feels of Pocahontas's "Colours of the Wind", yet with the pride of the savanna in Lion King. They reminded us and I guess also call out to us to embrace the nature in us, to sing like the birds do, to be carefree yet also be part of the world by contributing our best. "Karmic connection" was mentioned a few times in the film, hinting at the Buddhist context of the country and the director himself.

2) It portrayed the locals as they are, hence the authenticity

The actors were all locals, and the villagers were all themselves. The children all kept their own names, although the yak didn't. They showed the culture of the Bhutanese, specifically the ones in Lunana. For example, using of herbs for medicinal use, yak herding and the songs the yak herders sing, and using of dry yak dung as fire starters! The village and school were not a studio setup prop, and the film even included real stories and events from the village and the people. You'll know when you watch the film or read the interview linked at the end of this post.

"Start lighting them from the side, then it'll burn on its own."

3) The movie and the ending made you reflect with the main character

The characters' conversations do make you think about happiness as a concept and even the idea or more the upholding of nationalism in a citizen. In this film, they were referring to Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Index, which is the top in the world, but showing the disparity of this fact against the main character's intention to migrate from his own country. Despite Bhutan being the happiest country, the youths are leaving. This is apparently the true case among Bhutan's younger population. The film captured this struggle very straightforwardly through conversation between the head of the village and the teacher.

"I heard people claim that we are the happiest country in the world. Yet you... someone who is educated, someone who can serve the country, someone who is the future of our country, wishes to seek happiness elsewhere?"

4) It ended with sort of a cliffhanger

Spoiler: It wasn't a happy ending. Or could it be? Well, the teacher migrated to Australia in the end, and he got the job he wanted at the beginning of the film, to be a singer. However, in the final scene, you can already feel alongside the main character, his regret of leaving Lunana, and Bhutan even, when the camera was panning through his audience in the bar. There was no one appreciating his singing, unlike when he was back in Bhutan. Then, he began to sing the song he learned at Lunana... The end.

Whether or not he choose to return to his country, or even to the remote village, and to return as a teacher, it is up to our own imagination to close his chapter.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film. It is 109minutes of my life I gladly gave away. And this is including watching the credits to know the cast as well!

Read more about the story behind the film HERE from an NPR article cum interview.