January 20, 2022
After the Academy disqualified the film last year because Bhutan lacked an officially recognized selection committee, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is now on the Oscar shortlist for Best International Feature Film. If it scores the coveted nod come February, it would be the first South Asian film nominated since Lagaan in 2002. The movie’s U.S. theatrical release comes nearly three years after its festival premiere. But this long and arduous journey is fitting for a story about a young teacher from Thimphu, Bhutan’s bustling capital, assigned to a school in Lunana, a glacial village so secluded that the only way to access it is a weeklong trek on foot.
With a simple script, Lunana is plain in its visual presentation but finds glimmers of humanity through its measured and realistic performances. Filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji shot the movie on location. Several cast members are first-time actors from Lunana, in the tiny district of Gasa (“Population: 448,” as the on-screen text describes). However, like the long journey to its remote location, the film doesn’t arrive at this setting until well over half an hour into its 109-minute runtime.
The film follows Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji), a young singer who shirks his duties as a government-employed teacher. He has one eye set firmly on a music career in Australia, an aspiration he shares with the actor who plays him. His only family is his ailing grandmother (Tsheri Zom), so there’s little tying him to Bhutan, a kingdom whose claim to fame — the world’s highest “Gross National Happiness” — he sports on a t-shirt with a sense of irony. Ugyen is anything but happy. His dreams lie elsewhere, in a different hemisphere, and until his visa comes through, he’s simply biding his time. His assignment to Lunana (“the dark valley”), which lacks electricity or cell service and has a population of 56, is a punishment of sorts for his lackadaisical demeanor, so the prospect doesn’t leave him much happier.
The initial scenes telegraph a seemingly obvious story about a privileged, prickly urban youngster forced into unfamiliar surroundings, until he eventually learns to appreciate rural tradition. But as much as Lunana is about Ugyen learning kindness, it also points its camera at the idea of what it even means to be “the world’s happiest country” (and why a character like Ugyen might want to leave a place with this supposed distinction). The Lunana natives — introduced as a happy-go-lucky sort with quirks and routines — seem satisfied with their tranquil surroundings. Still, the film avoids patronizing them and instead asks whether this apparent contentment is by choice.