Lunana: A Sweet and Marvelous Film


Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2019)

Directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji

Films Boutique, 109 minutes, PG

In Dzongkha with subtitles






I tagged this charming film in my end-of-2022 roundup as among my favorite viewing experiences. It was the first film from Bhutan ever nominated for an Oscar. It didn’t win and more’s the pity, as it has delighted audiences around the globe, a place that apparently doesn’t include Hollywood.


If you don’t know much about Bhutan, it’s a landlocked nation of 727,145 nestled in the Himalayans between India and China. Nearly 90 percent of the Bhutanese are Buddhists, which helps explain why it’s the world’s most peaceful nation and the least corrupt. But it speaks volumes that among its major exports are root crops and a caterpillar-like fungus used in Chinese traditional medicine.


About 15 percent of the population lives in Thimphu, the capital and closest thing there is to a metropolis. That’s where we find Ugyen (Sherab Dorji*). All Bhutanese citizens must do national service and Ugyen owes another year. He’s a slacker who prefers to hang out with his friends and perform in local pubs. His big plan is to move to Australia to become a singer. Because he has been lackluster in previous placements, he is handed a teaching posting in Lunana, home to the world’s most remote school. With just 800 people, it doesn’t have much of anything else except yak herders. It’s an exhausting several day drive and hike from Thimpu with an overnight stop in a hotel I doubt you’ll wish to reserve on hotels.com.


His hiking guide Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lendup) promises him he will take him back down if he doesn’t like the village. Ugyen takes one look at Lunana and wants to return immediately, though Michen and village leader Asha Jinpa (Kunzang Wangdi) convince him the mules must rest. He beds down in his quarters, which make the wayside hotel look posh. The wind blows constantly and there is only yellowed paper on the windows. Ugyen crawls into his sleeping bag and falls deeply asleep. Imagine his surprise when a cheerful mite named Pem Zam awakes him, announces herself the class captain, and leads him to the school.


He has prepared nothing, but is surprised to find a roomful of attendant students awaiting instruction. I once taught in a resources-poor school, but Lunana takes the cake. Lunana’s school consists of crudely-made adjoined wooden desks, no chalk, no chalkboard, no paper, and no supplies of any sort. Nor does Ugyen have any cellphone coverage, though where he thought he’d plug it in is anyone’s guess. He dismisses the class and promises to come prepared the next day. You can probably predict where all this is heading, but how it gets there will warm your heart better than the dried yak dung locals use for heating and cooking.


Several things melt Ugyen’s cynicism. The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, he feels sorry for the kids, and locals treat him with more respect than he has ever known. Asha insists he was probably a yak in a previous life, a huge compliment! Ugyen also hears a song wafting from the hill behind the school sung by Asha’s niece Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung). Saldon teaches him “Yak Labi Lhadar,” the song he heard, and the fact that she’s easy on the eyes also makes Lunana seem more tolerable. There are numerous amusing city boy in the mountains moments, but we also watch Ugyen come into his own as a creative teacher who helps his students learn math, English, and Dzongkha, Bhutan’s official language.


Is there really a yak in the classroom? Yes, and its name is Norbu. Grateful villagers gave it to Ugyen so he can collect his own dung for heat! He keeps it in the classroom because it’s too cold for Norbu to be outside, so why not use the yak in lesson plans? As winter approaches, though, Ugyen cannot stay in Lunana. He will make his way to Australia and sing in a bar where no one pays any attention until he dusts off a special song. Bet you know what it is.


You must watch this film as my words cannot express what a gem it is. Call it a thin-air take on Conrack. And if you don’t think Pem Zam is adorable and steals the show, seek help!


Rob Weir


* No relation to the director; Dorji is a common Bhutanese surname.


The Other Half: Life and Death Among the Upper Class




By Charlotte Vassell

Anchor Books, 368 pages.





F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that the rich “are different from you and me.” British novelist Charlotte Vassell focuses on a group that’s not a literal other half–more like the top 1-5 percent. She opens big with a small sentence: “A girl is dying.”


The suspects in The Other Half are those turning 30 who met at Oxford and have cultivated the belief that they are superior to those beneath them. They wear bespoke shirts and discourse on the best place to buy suits and designer threads. Rupert Achilles de Courcy Beauchamp decides to mark his 30th at a McDonald’s by throwing money at the staff, commandeering the second floor, making fun of the food, and trashing the place. Don’t imagine for a second the party invitees feel guilty about leaving a mess for wage earners to clean.


The Oxfordians are also arch–Clemence “Clemmie” O’Hara is called “Phlegm” behind her back–spend more on a lunch than some working-class families spend on groceries in a month, use designer drugs (MDMA), hold down “jobs” such as artist, influencer, and private equity manager, and have solicitors and contacts in high places to get them out of scrapes. But what if one of them is guilty of murder?


Vassell throws a lot of names at us early on, but the story eventually settles on a handful of the rich: Rupert, Clemmie, Alex(andros) Adonis, and Araminta “Minty” Gaunt. They are beautiful in style and looks, though perhaps the most lovely of all is the one who did not come from money, went to Oxford with loads of scholarship money, and needs to work for her keep. Helena “Nell” Waddington, is bookish, red-haired, and the object of desire of both Alex and Rupert. The latter is a problem as Rupert and Clemmie have dated and/or cohabited for ten years. Alex and Nell have come to see Rupert as a pompous, amoral jerk, but he’s also irresistible in many ways, not the least is that he's filthy rich and in line to inherit a title as soon as an elderly uncle has the decency to expire. Nell prefers Alex, but Rupert dangles a lot in front of a young woman of limited means and promises he’s about to dump Clemence who, to be fair, shows outward signs of being an airhead.


The real “other half” of the novel is represented by the law enforcement team seeking to crack a murder case that keeps leading them back into social circles well above their paygrades. Detective Inspector Caius Beauchamp has the same last name as Rupert, and is light-skinned enough to pass for white (or maybe Mediterranean), but was raised in a Jamaican fundamentalist Baptist family before becoming a cop and losing his religion (and probably his French girlfriend). He pronounces his surname “Bo’ champ;” Rupert snippily informs his last name is pronounced  “Beecham.”


Caius’ partners are Detective Sgt. Matt Cheung, who is half British and half Asian, and Detective Constable Amy Noakes, who finds her male partners’ assumptions partly sexist and partly hilarious. Caius and Matt are the book’s comic relief. Caius is on a self-improvement kick in which he reads weighty tomes, tortures himself with exercise, and tries to convince himself that a vegan diet is good for him. Matt is the devil on his shoulder tempting him with junk food, meat, pastries, and other such things. He also makes sure Caius doesn’t become a Gloomy Gus. The Caius/Matt pairing also serves to show how ethnicity matters if you’re not rich, but is pushed under the rug if you are.


You’ve heard the expression “to die for love.” The Other Half hinges on whether someone would kill for it. The book is filled with deplorable people–and I’ve not even gotten into imperious art historian Dr. Fay Bruce Osbald–but does snobbery and doing tone deaf things make someone a killer? Vassell keeps us guessing by moving back and forth between plebeian spaces–the police station, roadside pubs, small flats–and upper crust galleries, estates, clubs, and oh-so-fashionable Bloomsbury.  


The Other Half suffers a bit from having too many unlikable characters; not even Nell passes muster as someone for whom we should root. Vassell’s London doesn’t come off well either; it’s either “dirty” or indefensibly posh. But I will say that Vassell kept me off guard and that I did not predict what was coming.


Rob Weir