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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Save your cynicism, ‘Lunana’ is a sweet little film

Dan Webster

Above: Bhutan's "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom" is an Oscar nominee for Best International Feature Film, (Photo/Amazon Prime)

Movie review: "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom," written and directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji, starring Sherab Dorji, Ugyen Norbu Llendup, Pem Zam. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Any day is a good day when you can quote George Carlin. To that end, the late, great comic and social commentator once said, “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.”

That’s the kind of sentiment that describes many people I know. And it applies to me, too, which explains why I tend to roll my eyes at any kind of fervid sentiment that I suspect is false or delusional or self-serving – as are so many of the messages that I see put forth by everything from Madison Avenue ads to TV news reports to the simplest of social-media messaging.

It's arguably worse in movies, though, when producers feel the need to employ every conceivable cliché as a means of manipulating us into feeling some emotion, whether it be too-ardent nationalism, heartbreak or that happy kind of escapism that is akin to rubbing up against a bag full of kittens.

That final sentiment was what I expected to have to endure when I watched the nominee for the 2022 Best International Feature Film (formerly the Best Foreign Language Film) titled “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” – Bhutan’s first Oscar nominee, which is streaming on Amazon Prime.

I’d already seen, either in the theater or through some streaming service, the other four nominees: Japan’s “Drive My Car,” Denmark’s “Flee,” Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World” and Italy’s “The Hand of God.” I have my favorites among the bunch, and to be honest I wasn’t expecting much from Bhutanese writer/director Pawo Choyning Dorji.

But I’m not ashamed to admit that I was wrong. “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is a movie that might have melted even George Carlin’s heart.

Not that I changed my mind right away: First of all, that title is the very definition of cute. Then there’s our protagonist, a young teacher-in-training named Ugyen (played by Sherab Dorji). Having finished the fourth year of a five-year program, he is bored and fairly certain he doesn’t want to be a teacher. Instead, he wants to emigrate to Australia and become a singer of pop tunes.

But before he can do so, he’s forced to take a summer job teaching in a remote village, the Lunana of the film’s title, a place so far from his home city that he has to take a long bus trip and even then hike farther on for some eight days.

Ugyen is your typical self-obsessed young guy, one who is far more interested in wearing his headphones and listening to music than in getting to know either of the two men who have come all the way to guide him to the village. He even makes light of the respectful attitude they show him. It never occurs to him that the villagers might think he’s doing them a great honor. To him, it’s just a job.

The village turns out en masse to greet him, which surprises him – and has him feeling slightly uncomfortable. And his discomfort only grows as he sees just how primitive his living conditions will be: no electricity, basic food, outside toilet facilities, and so on.

There is the terminally cute student, Pem Zam, a real-life Lunana resident who ends up being Ugyen’s classroom assistant. One of his guides, Michen, ignores Ugyen’s inherent rudeness and helps him acclimate to village life. Naturally it falls to a beautiful young maiden to teach Ugyen the ways of traditional mountain music. And, of course, there is the yak – in the classroom.

Here's the thing, though: Writer-director Dorji presents all this matter-of-factly. He resists the temptation to over-emphasize the maudlin aspects of the film’s plot as, say, a Disney production  might. Though Ugyen does grow to appreciate this village and its people, he never has a complete change of heart. And this leads to an ending that is as surprising as it is bittersweet.

And yet that ending is perhaps the most authentic and affecting part of “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.” It’s open-ended, leaving the possibility of a range of outcomes – including one in which a lifetime of regret comes from making the natural but ultimately wrong choice.

Anyway, that’s just the view of this disappointed idealist.

An edited version of this review was previously broadcast on Spokane Public Radio.