Movie Review: Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

Every year there is at least one movie nominated for an Oscar that comes seemingly out of nowhere. While the Bhutanese film Lunana was on the longlist for Best International Feature, there were other films that seemed more likely to make the final 5, so when it wound up being included it did come as a bit of a surprise. Marking the small, mountainous country’s first Academy Award nomination, the microbudgeted movie was filmed on location in the remote village it’s named after and features the area’s real children in the cast, despite the fact that they had never even seen a camera before. That and other hardships the crew had to endure make it a minor miracle that they were able to produce a final product at all, let alone one that turned out so well.

Aspiring singer Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is begrudgingly finishing out his term of government service as a teacher in the capital city of Thimphu while dreaming of moving to Australia. His boss has become fed up with his attitude and so for his final year sends him to the tiny village of Lunana, reached only by an 8-day journey through the Himalayas, much of it by foot, where there is no running water and only sporadically available solar electricity. The schoolhouse is in a poor state and has virtually no supplies, but the 8 or so students he is placed in charge of are eager to learn. He quickly becomes endeared to them and so pushes through his reservations and decides to stay and try his best. As he learns about the ways of the village from guide Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup) and the village leader’s daughter Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung) he gradually adapts and comes to appreciate the natural beauty of the valley and begins to develop feelings for Saldon.

The cast all feel very natural, which in the case of the villagers isn’t too surprising since most of them are effectively playing themselves. The story doesn’t really go anywhere that you can’t see coming from a Himalayan mountaintop, but it’s still irresistibly charming all the same. The natural beauty of the valley is captured perfectly resulting in countless breathtaking shots and backdrops. It should inspire viewers to better appreciate what they have and to understand what a gift an education can be. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a sweet little movie with endearing characters (including the yak in the subtitle) that will bring a smile to your face while it steals your heart. ★★★★

NOT RATED. Contains mild language.

★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor

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