About ten minutes into Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, you will realise you’ve seen this film before. Of course, you haven’t, not really. In fact, it’s entirely possible you’ve never seen a film from Bhutan before, or even a film specifically set in Bhutan, never mind from a Bhutanese perspective. As a piece of storytelling, though, you’ve seen this film. You’ve seen this plot construction play out hundreds of times and, realistically, if the average viewer paused the film at the ten minute point, and was tasked to write down the plot summary from that point onwards, they’d get it all right. I mean, especially as the film’s one eccentricity is telegraphed in the title.
But, this isn’t a problem. Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom reminds us that some narratives just work, that they carry a charm and provide a compelling arc that has been established and repeated for a reason. It is the story of a jaded teacher in the city who, though he dreams of leaving Bhutan for Australia, is sent to teach in the remote mountain town of Lunana. He will be without modern conveniences in a wildly different cultural setting, reductively understood as back to basics stuff: people living with and off of the land. Maybe this reticent educator will learn to appreciate the simple things; maybe he will learn about himself; maybe he will gain a renewed interest in education; maybe he will learn what really matters; maybe he will be initially keen to leave but eventually desperate to stay. Maybe you’ve seen this film before.
Of course, you may not have seen a film with a yak in the classroom before, and there certainly is a yak in the classroom in this film. It is a long wait for the yak, but it is worth it. You wait a while to even see a yak, and about seventy minutes to see a classroom bound yak. In fact, it delays it so long that you will start to fear the yak is a metaphor, or the phrase ‘a yak in the classroom’ an idiom. The film even has a conversation about how the main character is like a yak, which seems to almost cement the idea that an actual yak in an actual classroom will not be witnessed. Then, thirty seconds later, a damn yak in a damn classroom. You have to see it to believe it. Again, it’s worth the wait.
Maybe putting a yak in the classroom is the only meaningful divergence from an established formula here; though, even that eccentricity has parallels. But, the structure works. It is an excuse to showcase the beauty of Bhutan, this has some lovely shots of local vistas that also differentiate the film. After all, film is a form of tourism. This is a view of Bhutan that is supposed to be distinct even in Bhutan, it is therefore such a treat for wider audiences. By placing a familiar story in a cinematically unfamiliar locale, where to watch feels like to learn, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom has such inherent appeal. It is just a charming film. A known film, but a charming one.