THE STORY – An aspiring singer living with his grandmother in the capital of Bhutan dreams of getting a visa to move to Australia.
THE CAST – Sherab Dorji, Ugyen Norbu Lhendup, Kelden Lhamo Gurung & Kunzang Wangdi
THE TEAM – Pawo Choyning Dorji (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
By Josh Parham
It is always a cause of celebration to be given the opportunity to view cinema that comes from regions that may not be entirely familiar. Even the most dedicated film-watchers who pride themselves on seeking out the best that the international landscape offers will freely admit to having specific areas of ignorance. For many, films that hail from the nation of Bhutan might be a shallow depth of knowledge. Fortunately, that local industry has been going through somewhat of a boom in the past decade, and “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” might very well be the highest profiled offering yet. It’s an excellent opportunity to discover stories in new settings, even if this particular offering maintains a strict formula that doesn’t deviate too far beyond what is anticipated.
Living in the country’s bustling capital city, aspiring singer Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) is currently training to be a teacher and finds himself at a crossroads in his life. He is disaffected with his current course and has ambitions to move to Australia to pursue his artistic dreams. However, in his final year, he is sent to Lunana, a highly remote part of the country that requires a week-long trek to reach. Once there, he does not have many of the modern technologies he is accustomed to, and the adaptation to rural life is met with frustration and resentment. However, the people of the small village soon invade his closed heart, and Ugyen comes to appreciate the lessons he bestows and the knowledge he himself gains while becoming a part of this close-knit community.
The plot description makes the film sound as if it has an incredibly pedestrian structure, and that’s because it undoubtedly does. One can immediately spot the arc this protagonist will go through, from his self-centered priorities eventually melting away as the goodness of this new environment broadens his perspective. Writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji presents a fairly familiar tale that finds little nuance within this rigid outline. The motivations from all the characters are apparent; the culture-clash setup mines shallow territory and the resolution arrives with expected fanfare, often with a sluggish pace. Even a tangential romance subplot introduced is quite mundane in its execution, save for the titular yak that is given as a kind gesture to foster a deeper connection. The storytelling does not aim higher than what is necessary, and those looking for a more complex take on well-worn tropes will not find such avenues taken.
Still, there is an endearing element at the film’s heart that is not easy to resist. While predictable, the theme that runs throughout the piece is filled with an earnest acknowledgment of the power within the quest for knowledge. It’s pretty captivating to see the young students embody an unquenchable thirst to expand their understanding of the world, delivered by a man who slowly comes to be inspired by them as well. Again, this is not the most inventive of concepts, but the tone manages to find a simple yet effective commentary. Even when not entirely successful, one cannot deny the charming intentions at play.
On the topic of effective charm, Sherab Dorji projects a compelling presence that fills the shoes of this role quite easily. One wouldn’t say there is anything particularly extraordinary in his portrayal, but he inhabits a casual nature that’s engaging. Other members of the ensemble shine on their own terms, particularly Ugyen Norbu Lhendup as one of the main character’s trusted village residents, while Lhendup has such a warm and inviting demeanor that it is instantly beguiling. In all honesty, most of the child performances are somewhat stilted apart from Pem Zam, whose precocious energy is never overbearing and is consistently a delightful personality to witness.
Despite the allure of many aspects to “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” it is difficult for the film to overcome its banal conceit truly. The ways in which the narrative unfolds are never unanticipated, which ultimately puts a limit on the emotional impact that is conveyed. At the same time, the resonance within this story of valuing the learning process within a culture that finds beauty in the natural world is an engrossing discussion. With a handful of nice performances and even the occasional example of strong filmmaking aesthetics, the film is a heartfelt invitation to explore a new realm of cinema. This particular example may tread on recognizable terrain, but a novel setting with an appealing aura is a cause for gratitude nonetheless.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The film has an endearing narrative about the power of learning that is enjoyable and heartfelt. Many of the actors have captivating personas and deliver fine performances.
THE BAD – The story is very uneventful, with a predictable narrative and mundane character arcs. The momentum can be sluggish.
THE OSCARS – Best International Feature Film (Nominated)