8 Jun 2022

At The Movies - Lunana

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 8 June 2022

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is the story of the cynical teacher learning life lessons in a Himalayan mountain village.

Simon Morris: This year's nominees for the Best International Film Oscar came from pretty much where you'd expect - one from Italy, a couple from Scandinavia and the eventual winner was Japan's Drive My Car.

The odd one out was a film from the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. It's called Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.

Bhutan, as the film itself concedes, is one of the most remote places on Earth - situated at the top of the Himalayan mountains between India and China.

No wonder young Ugyen wants to get out. He's in his fourth year of a five-year teaching course. Long enough to know that teaching isn't for him. He wants to go to Australia and play guitar in pubs.

His boss gives him one last chance. She sends him to a place called Lunana, where they need a teacher.

Lunana is famous in Bhutan for being even more remote than the rest of the country.

Ugyen takes the bus as far as it goes, and then he's met by guides from Lunana, with their horses. They set off on a six-day hike, pretty much uphill all the way.

On Day 2 Ugyen loses the signal on his phone. Goodbye Twenty-First Century, essentially.

The village is so pleased to have him that they meet him on the road, and walk the last few hours with him, like visiting royalty.

Even someone as self-centred as Ugyen feels a bit embarrassed. But one look at his primitive quarters and he tells the village headman it's not for him. He wants to go back immediately.

The headman tells him he'll have to wait a few days. But while he's waiting, perhaps he could put in a few days teaching.

And he's introduced to the nine adorable Lunana kids, led by the cutest nine-year-old girl in Bhutan, one Pem Zam. She plays the class captain, also called Pem Zam.

And wouldn't you know it, those little Lunana tykes start chipping away at Ugyen's selfishness. It's really only going to take one more little push before he stays at the school all season.

And he gets that push when he goes for a walk up in the mountains.

Who's that singing, he wonders? It turns out to be the local yak-herder, Saldon. And I have to say that yak-herders are rather more statuesque and attractive than the job description suggests.

Part of the job, we're told if we feel like going in for yak herding ourselves, involves singing. A good yak-herder sings loud and clear, songs like the famous "Yak Lebi Lhadar".

As a musician himself - remember his wish to go and sing in Sydney bars? - Ugyen is intrigued by both the tasty Saldon and her catchy song. He realizes it might take a while to learn it properly.

As a reward for lingering in Lunana, Saldon gives him one of her yaks. You can keep Norbu in the classroom, where he can act as a teaching aid.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom kept reminding me of other films - the Shangri-La of Lost Horizon, of course, bits of Local Hero at times, and another Himalayan drama Black Narcissus, but without the crazy nuns. I suspect this might not be a coincidence.

Everything about the film seemed geared to buttering up the Oscar nominators. Right down to the bittersweet ending, featuring a reprise of "Yak Lebi Lhadar", sung in a Sydney pub.

Would I include it in the list of best movies made around the world last year?

No, I wouldn't. I might put it on the list of "All right, I suppose." All right, if you like yaks, is what I'm saying.