Being reel: Bhutan’s first Academy Award nominated film redefines purpose

Two girls are sitting in a classroom.
“Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is an Oscar nominee for Best International Feature Film. (Courtesy: Samuel Goldwyn Films)

This column contains spoilers for “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”

Ever since “Parasite” conquered the Oscars in 2019 with its historic four Oscar wins, American audiences have become more attuned to the Best International Feature Film category. Criticism of the Oscars’ representation problem across award categories is valid, especially considering how actors of color in international films rarely get recognized. This year’s international feature category, however, included some new and unexpected representation.

Bhutan’s submission for the category, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” managed to score an Oscar nomination. This came as a surprise, as most critics expected “A Hero” directed by Asghar Farhadi (who won in 2011 for his film “A Separation”) to get it. Considering it came out in 2019, it is even more remarkable that “Lunana” made it into the nominees, especially since it was rejected from competition last year.

“Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is, superficially, a story we have seen before. It’s about a teacher who is disinterested in his career in education and has larger aspirations to be a singer in Australia. Finally, by the end of the film, he commits to his goals of becoming a singer but with a renewed sense of purpose after having been inspired by teaching children. 

Director Payo Choyning Dorji elevates this from simply being a cliché coming-of-age story by placing the bulk of the story in a village that has the most remote school in the world — Lunana, a town near the Bhutan-Tibet border, with a population of 56. 

The main character in the story is a young man named Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) who is dreading completing his last year of mandatory government service. He lives with his grandmother who wants him to display some national pride by completing his teaching gig with fervor. Instead, the government agency in charge of Ugyen decides to teach him a lesson and sends him to Lunana, reasoning that Ugyen’s presence there as a teacher will help the government raise Bhutan’s “gross national happiness” — a real metric that gets calculated by the Bhutanese government to prove, on the world stage, that they are indeed the world’s happiest country.

Ugyen is an unprepared and pampered man, but when he finally reaches Lunana, he gets inspired by the fiery “class captain” Pem Zam, and decides to stay in the village to teach the eager children. Eventually, Ugyen procures his visa to go to Australia to become a professional singer, but the decision to leave has become much harder than he originally thought. He leaves behind a legacy of being the best teacher Lunana has ever seen, and he leaves with memories of his country that are unique compared to what he had previously experienced from living in the capital.

This film accomplishes something remarkably subtle in recognizing and acknowledging the film’s origin. The other nominated films also consider localized geopolitics and region-specific aspects like dialects or local histories, but “Lunana” is the only film nominated this year that could not be remade in another country’s context. The inclusion of Bhutanese geography, folklore and personal history brings the outsider perspective of the audience into direct intimacy with the source content. The film is deeply empathetic and relatively simple, but it doesn’t distill Bhutan just to the film’s runtime. For a country that has lived in relative cinematic obscurity, this film piques the interest of viewers while not essentializing the culture.

Bhutan still has a royal family and its government highly values the “gross national happiness” metric. These two aspects are consistently mentioned throughout “Lunana” in order to illustrate how important commitment to a nation is. How could you possibly want to leave the happiest country in the world? 

This question rings in Ugyen’s ears, yet we realize over the course of the film that it is his commitment to music which ties him to Bhutan, not the country of Bhutan itself, where he feels like he has reached a dead end with his ambitions. He gets his guitar sent to him in Lunana, where he sings for the children and teaches them songs like “Old McDonald,” but he also puts down the guitar and relishes in the villagers teaching him classical yak-herding songs. Ugyen struggles with his sense of belonging, especially in his own country.

When he finally gets to Australia, he becomes sentimental, interrupting the cover he is singing in a bar to sing that exact yak-herding song — with its lyrics scribbled on his old “visit Australia” pamphlet. He will always be tied to Bhutan, especially through his experiences in Lunana. One gets the sense that, by the time this film ends, his pride is directly a symptom of those experiences. It is a story that is about particular cultural practices in Bhutan, but also is the story of countless immigrants who leave home to chase a dream and yet are still nostalgic for home.

The film further benefits from gorgeous cinematography which displays the Bhutanese snow capped mountains, and provides an insight into how villagers like those in Lunana are being affected by climate change. The performances by the children in the film are fantastic, and their excitement for learning is clearly communicated, especially considering that these village kids are playing themselves. 

“Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is still the biggest underdog for Best International Feature Film, but it deserves more recognition. It is purely charming and explores the choices we make to feel fulfilled at home or by our dreams, making the 100 minute journey well worth it. 

Adam Osman-Krinsky PO ’25 is from New York City. He loves movies and logs all his most recent watches on his letterboxd @Adam0k and talks about movies on his twitter @ahoyvey.

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