PG, 109 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Travellers lucky enough to have visited Bhutan will have insights of their own into the small mountain kingdom wedged between China and India, but for the rest of us it seems an exotic destination for trekking. And the country has this unusual take on national productivity, a gross happiness index, that is the only one of its kind.
As grand and beautiful Bhutanese mountain vistas sprawl across the screen, is it any wonder that its people are content? Though they are concerned about our warming climate and its impact on their abundant forests and plentiful wildlife including the black-necked crane, snow leopard and takin.
Trekking and happiness are integral to the foundations of this gentle, uplifting film about a young trainee teacher sent to Lunana, in the far reaches of the kingdom, as his final year assignment. Is it because he shows the dedication to his profession required for such a remote position? No, it’s because he is on the point of quitting teaching altogether.
As a rebellious young trainee teacher, he has to push back against the frank and patient charm of those who influence him
It won’t be the altitude that makes life difficult for Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) at 3,500 metres above sea level. As his superiors see it, it will be the attitude that has made him decide he wants to emigrate to Australia and become a singer instead.
As a rebellious young Bhutanese, Ugyen has to push back against the frank and patient charm of those who influence him, like his grandmother (Tsheri Zom) who is his only kin, leaving him in no doubt what she thinks of his plans. The guide assigned to take Ugyen on the long trek to Lunana, through thick forests and up steep mountainsides, has a more persuasive style. It will be easy, says Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup) with a smile, and Ugyen won’t ever want it to end. By the time Ugyen has realised that it is all uphill and strenuous, Michen admits that he doesn’t like to discourage people as they set out on an 8-day trek.
Eventually, Ugyen has to submit to the full outdoors experience. As his iPod loses power, he has to take his headphones off and take in the environment around him. It’s also a nuisance to be wearing the wrong shoes, cool as they are. A pair of old wellie boots would have been better. Had he lived in the mountains all his life, he may indeed not have needed any shoes at all, like his host at a destination along the way.
A week of trekking is the first leg of Ugyen’s personal journey of self-discovery. When he reaches Lunana, where he is welcomed as a visiting dignitary, the next begins. As he learns from his students, a teacher who inspires and engages makes through them a connection with the future. And he learns from a lovely local girl who herds yaks, Saldon (Kelden Gurung), about the most efficient ways to keep himself and his class warm.
A gentle, uplifting tale that is both armchair trek through Bhutanese mountain wilderness and a meditation on what makes people happy
The beautiful children in Ugyen’s school are a dream class by today’s challenging standards, eager to learn and full of reverence for their instructor. The head student, whose name is Pem Zam when in character and when out of it, is drawn from the Lunana community itself, as were many of the cast.
The school building is a basic construction of wood and stone. There are no teaching materials or equipment, not even a blackboard and there is no electricity. A very large hairy yak has taken up residence in one corner of the classroom to assist, in his way, with the heating.
The closing scenes that take place in Australia are no surprise, yet the narrative is left hovering in the balance. Time will tell.
A debut feature for writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji, this is the first Bhutanese film to be nominated for an Oscar. There has been a small but steady flow of films from the tiny kingdom for the last twenty years or so, including Tibetan-Bhutanese filmmaker Kyentse Norbu’s feature early on about novice monks mad for football, The Cup.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is simply told, and a more serious tale than Norbu’s comic outing. While it is on one level an armchair trip through the remote Bhutanese wilderness, it has things to say about teaching that we could well learn, all over again.
First published in the Canberra Times on 5 June 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes