Review: A charmer from Bhutan, ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’ warms the heart

Two young girls wear colorful robes in the movie “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Pem Zam, left, and Sangay Lham in “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

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Landlocked between China and India, the kingdom of Bhutan measures its progress not on material gains but on the gross national happiness, a concept by which the government claims to prioritize the well-being of its citizens above all else. That utopian philosophy permeates first-time director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” the country’s second ever Oscar entry for international feature film.

A classic inspirational yarn of a city dweller learning to treasure the joyous simplicity of pastoral lifes, the heart-melting drama follows young teacher Ugyen (Sherab Dorji), who dreams of migrating to Australia to pursue a singing career.


Forced to trek to the far-flung Himalayan town of Lunana (population: 56) to instruct the local children at the world’s remotest school, he encounters a welcoming community with no modern comforts but where national pride flourishes and educators are revered because they “touch the future” of the country.

Against the backdrop of cinematographer Jigme Tenzing’s vibrant mountainous vistas, shot with a severe degree of difficulty in this environment with no essential urban utilities, the familiarity of the premise is made anew in the specificity of the visitor’s culture shock: imparting English lessons to kids who’ve never seen an automobile or used a toothbrush.

Facing the mountains with a prospective love interest, Ugyen chants a traditional song honoring the furry yaks — creatures beloved for their milk, meat and even their flammable excrement — in an instance that suffuses the picture with a sacred energy.

Though one might assume only the supporting villager parts, including that of vivacious girl Pem Zam, are played by innately talented neophytes under auspicious directions, Dorji himself is a first-timer impressing with the nuance of his heart-on-his-sleeve acting. Via the collective down-to-earth temperament of the cast, the movie gets away with utter sincerity.

Opening the doors to a land and people most Westerners know little about, the director crafts a crowd-pleaser in stunning, mostly unseen locations whose charms weather even its most idealistically patriotic and overly saccharine notes. However far Ugyen goes, no tune will ever be more enchanting than the one that rests in “the world’s happiest country.”

‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’

In Dzongkha and English with English subtitles
Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 21, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Town Center, Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena. Starts Jan. 28, Laemmle Newhall; and Feb. 4, Laemmle Claremont.