Review of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2019)

Moving picture, 110 minutes

Seen in 2020.

Seen at a sold-out Frölunda Kulturhus cinema as one of the last screenings of GIFF 2020.

A poorly motivated young Bhutanese elementary-school teacher is sent to the most remote school in the world to serve out the last term of his five-year minimum service requirement. In a mountain village of 56 residents approximately 4800 m above sea level, his smartphone has no reception and there is no blackboard.

Evidently produced for an international audience. The script touches briefly on climate change and the concept of “Gross National Happiness”, English is used heavily, local culture is introduced at a level suitable for foreigners, and there is no open sexism or other parochial attitudes. Compare Buddha in Africa (2019) where the Chinese coming to Malawi are rumoured to eat people. Compare also Black Narcissus (1947), on colonial British troubles running a school in the same massif, though not the same country.

The structure is mostly comedy with a bit of unresolved romcom mixed in, but the profound poverty—largely ignored in Narcissus—is properly acknowledged, anchoring the mood. There are a lot of awkward scene transitions and loose ends, but the kids are cute and the overall arc is good: Gentle sentimentality with at least a strong hint of pastoral.

Despite the production itself using solar power to film on site in Lunana, solar power (hence technology) is oddly disparaged: it seems to take weeks before Ugyen’s devices start charging, and in all that time, the panels themselves are never shown, just dimissed by Michen as unreliable. This, more than Ugyen’s equivocation, suggests the pastoral mode, but it’s not too sharp.

moving picture fiction