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Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom review – gentle if obvious ode to the power of education

Bhutan's first Oscar-nominated film tells a simple, satisfying story of a teacher working in one of the world's most remote schools

The first 40 minutes of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom are soundtracked by the eclectic tracks that pour from Ugyen’s (Sherab Dorji) iPod. The film details this trainee teacher’s progression from a bored student to inspiring the young people as a Bhutanese village's sole teacher. But his journey from the city to the highlands of Bhutan, largely spent trudging through the forest, is made unbearable when his music stutters to a stop. Slowly Ugyen’s methods of insulating his worldview are disintegrating, the outside world infringing on his scepticism. Lunana charts a relatively simple arc that verges on being derivative, but manages to avoid this through thoughtful creative choices – like an iPod running out of battery.

While the film falls short in so obviously leaning into predictable story beats of an inspiring movie, director Pawo Choyning Dorji and his cinematographer Jigme Tenzing revel in the landscape, letting the mountaintops cocoon the characters, watching people serenely float in a sea of rich green. When Ugyen is first shown around his bare classroom and accommodation, the camera settles on individual items – a ball of yarn with a needle, a stove pieced together by scraps of rusted metal. This kind of hyper-focused lens, so distinct from the sweeping outdoors, is consistent with the curiosity and clarity that sets Lunana apart. Dorji is not interested in the novelty of living in such a remote location; instead he strives to involve the audience in these people’s lives, making this world feel as textured and immediate as any other.

Sherab Dorji’s performance feels appropriately grounded, with his distaste for country life is initially understated disinterest rather than obvious disgust. Really the film most effectively tells its story when dwelling on the supporting cast (filled out with locals from the actual village of Lunana). The child actors are thrillingly present, affectionate and present, playfully propelling the story forward. Their clothes are bright and ornately designed, sparks of life ringing out across the cool tones of the countryside, as clear as Saldon’s (Kelden Lhamo Gurung) singing from the overhanging cliff.

Saldon gifts Ugyen with Norbu, a yak to provide him with kindling and chalk (all made from dung in Lunana). From then on, the eponymous yak chomps stoically on grass in the background of every classroom scene. Norbu functions as a silly but earnest reminder of the lessons Ugyen has learned, proof that life is interconnected, demanding active cooperation from everything and everyone. Saldon summarises this philosophy best: “I survive because of my yak.” In the end there is no downloaded playlist that can replace Saldon’s lilting rendition of the Lunana folk song, “Yak Lebi Lhadar.” It swims across the valley, seeping in through the papered cracks of the schoolhouse, proof of this village and their willingness to learn.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is released in UK cinemas on 10 March.

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