Set in the south Asian nation of Bhutan, “Lunana: a Yak in the Classroom” tells the story of Ugyen, a teacher who aspires to move to Australia to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a singer. However, to align with his duties to the Bhutanese government, he must complete his fourth year of mandatory service teaching in Lunana, home to one of the world’s most remote schools.
Right away, I noticed the strong juxtaposition between a city kid like Ugyen and this remote town in the Orient. Ugyen spends essentially the entire journey complaining about its difficulty and pondering how, exactly, people survive in the middle of nowhere. He almost never takes out his headphones, completely disengaged with his natural surroundings and embraced in the material world.
But as he spends more time interacting with Lunana and its people, Ugyen starts to realize that they are not just a bunch of other-worldly “savages” — the people of Lunana value his presence and value teaching him the legends of their culture. For example, the yak is a motif that is a symbol of love and survival — they sing songs about it, they honor the dead with it, they start fires with its dung to cook food. The students of Lunana expose Ugyen to a different, engaging culture, and in return they value his own lessons through his teaching. This moment of realization in Ugyen’s first few days is the catalyst in his decision to stay in Lunana rather than panic and leave at first sight.
Ugyen still struggles to see Lunana outside of the other-worldly orientalist lens — he has nothing to teach the students with, no electricity, and albeit he is learning, there is still a disconnect between the modern world and the orient in several instances — his students do not know what a car is, and after he runs out of teaching supplies, he must have more sent from the nearest civilization. While learning the traditional songs of Lunana, he is told to “leave his job and sing songs from the hilltop.” While the citizens of Lunana imagined the “hilltop” as the physical hilltop that people sing songs from, one cannot help but imagine Australia — where Ugyen planned to go to become a singer before being sent off to Lunana; the place he thought success was the most possible.
When wintertime comes, Ugyen has the ability to fulfill his lifelong dream, but instead of the “it’ll just be a few months” attitude we saw at the beginning of the film, we see him having trouble leaving. In spite of the disconnect, Ugyen did everything he could for his students, and they let him know. The students embrace of Ugyen as their teacher helped him embrace the culture of Lunana, and even as he heads off for the “hilltop” of Australia, he sings the songs of Lunana.
And I know, in this final scene of the film, Ugyen felt he was doing good — the reasons the filmmakers showed the altitude of each place Ugyen visited (Lunana being the highest; Sydney, Australia the lowest) was to demonstrate that Australia isn’t a “hilltop” after all. As Ugyen got further away from civilization, the altitude literally and figuratively increased. “Lunana: a Yak in the Classroom” demonstrates orientalism’s affect on civilization, and how one can somehow become more enlightened by getting away from the modern world.