Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom – Redefined the Concept of Happiness

Movie Details

Genre: Drama, Family

Official Language : Dzongkha

Director : Pawo Choyning Dorji 

Producer : Pawo Choyning Dorji, Stephanie Lai, Shaokun Xiang

Writer : Pawo Choyning Dorji

Year : 2019

Runtime : 1h 50m

Distributor : Samuel Goldwyn Films

Reviewer: Faiza Nur Sabrina

The 94th Academy Award was over and it was filled with lots of surprises – of course, it’s hard to not mention the Will Smith–Chris Rock slapping incident but – also the movies that are listed in a variety of nominations. A debut movie from Bhutan, nominated for the Best International Feature Film category at the Oscars, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, instantly caught so much attention and become my all-time favorite movie. 

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom possesses a delicate, modest, and fun narrative as the story goes. The story itself is about Ugyen Dorji , who in the last years of his contract as a teacher was assigned to serve a school located in Bhutan’s most remote village: Lunana. But at that time, Ugyen Dorji was in the middle of his aversion. After all this time, he found out that he never truly wanted to be a teacher. All he wanted to do was move to Australia and be a singer. His grandmother, who was aware of Ugyen’s plan, has tried to convince Ugyen that being a teacher is an honored and respectful job to serve the country. 

Ugyen planned to cut off the last year of his teaching contract, but the ministry of education was strongly denied it and rather, send Ugyen Dorji to Lunana – a village in Gasa District in Northwestern Bhutan. Half-hearted Ugyen Dorji had no other choices but off to Lunana. There’s nothing he could do except finish his contract immediately and move to Australia as soon as possible to begin a new life. With iPod and headphones stuck on his ears, he went for a long journey to Lunana. 

Gross National Happiness

Bhutan is a small country in South Asia, located in the Eastern Himalayan mountains between India and China. This country had an enormous unique feature, and one of the most well-known government policies in Bhutan is the prioritizing of Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It seems bizarre, to measure the prosperity of its people using GNH. But that’s what makes Bhutan unique. The GNH was first coined by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th King of Bhutan in 1972, the time when he declared that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product”. The GNH was founded to have a more holistic way of measuring the development of a nation, by not only focusing on economics but also non-economic aspects. According to OPHI (Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative), there are nine domains that construct the GNH index, and one of them is education. The impact of GNH on policy made governments support the equal distribution in the access to education throughout Bhutan, even in the most remote area such as Lunana. That’s the reason why Ugyen Dorji was sent to Lunana. 

Live with the wisdom of Buddha and strongly preserve the culture, making Bhutanese the happiest people in the world. The GNH aspect is the core of this movie. From the beginning, we are shown a scene where Ugyen Dorji wore a T-shirt with the back title “Gross National Happiness – Bhutan”. But along with it, we’re also made aware that apparently, happiness is not for everybody in Bhutan, including Ugyen Dorji himself. For him, true happiness is when he could move to Australia and be a singer. Later, we’ll see that Lunana was capable to change his vision of happiness. 

The Beauty of the People and Landscape

I couldn’t deny, that the beauty of this movie is anchored in its people. Living in a race and fast pace environment sometimes made most of us fail to recognize the beauty of people. Growing and living in Thimpu – the capital of Bhutan, made Ugyen live a modern life. He became more individual and had fewer relationships with his community. It was a different situation in Lunana. The economic state of people in Lunana are below the average. They didn’t have much money and only live a simple life. But they won’t allow that condition took over their happiness. They could still enjoy their life, purely, truthfully, and consciously. People in Lunana possess a kind, warm and strong kinship. They also heavily hold their culture and preserve it. 

Live far from any modern tools and facilities in Lunana (with no cars, and no electricity) finally made Ugyen Dorji recognize his surroundings. From the beginning of the journey, all he did was put on his headphone and focused on the songs played on his iPod. He refuses to pay attention and interact with his surroundings because he knew that deep inside, he still had a strong refusal toward his assignment to Lunana. But the iPod cannot just live forever. As soon as his iPod was out of battery, he began to pay attention to the environment and had conversations with people, which later, change his point of view.

Lunana is located at a high altitude, about 4.800 meters above sea level, and the view was just breathtaking. This movie captured the mountainous landscape of Lunana so well with its long shots which made the scenery stands out. It is a gift for the people of Lunana to live in such a place. But it also comes with some difficulties. When the winter comes, they had to move to the lower place to avoid extremely cold weather. Even the Yak had to move too. 

Courage and Spirit in Study

Teacher is a highly respected profession in Bhutan. With the semi-monarchy form of government, it is important for Bhutanese to serve the King. Since the establishment of GNH was directly ordered by the King of Bhutan, it is clear that Bhutanese should also support the program. Being a teacher and serving the nation as an educator, Ugyen Dorji had a very special position, especially for the people of Lunana. Since the news that a new teacher will come to Lunana spread, the villagers were very excited about it. They can’t wait to meet someone very special, someone that they had been waiting for a long time. After Ugyen arrives in Lunana, the villagers of Lunana couldn’t even hide their amazement. They gathered around Ugyen and looked at him with pure excitement and wonder. 

There was only one school in Lunana, and it was stated as the most remote school not only in Bhutan, but in the world. The school building was just a simple hut made from bricks and stones without any board to write. Even with such limitations, the children’s spirit in the study was so big. They took the learning process seriously and showed real excitement. One of the students, named Sangay Dorji said that he wanted to be a teacher, someday when he grew up, just like Ugyen, because “a teacher can touch the future”. From that day, Ugyen slowly get along with the children and started to feel the happiness by teaching in Lunana. 


Then there was a Yak. It’s an endemic animal that is found many in Tibet and around Himalayas. There were enormous Yak living in Lunana, and people were highly dependent on Yak in every aspect. They made Yak as their livestock, where people use their milik, meat, skin and even its waste. Villagers in Lunana saw Yak as an important companion, sometimes having a strong bond between the herder and the Yak itself.  There’s even a traditional song about the story of Yak in Lunana titled Yak Lebi Lhadar. The involvement of Yak in this movie brings a real nuance of Lunana, because Yak is inseparable from people’s life in Lunana. 

One day without any anticipation, one of the villagers gave a Yak named Norbu to Ugyen, and with a special request, the Yak should stay inside the school building because if Ugyen released it ouside, the Yak will get cold. There it is, Ugyen started to take care of and fed him. Later, the children were studying with a Yak inside of the school, but they didn’t complain at all. One day they play together with Norbu and spend so much time together. 


Living at a high altitude and (probably) in the most remote area in the world, had already changed Ugyen’s perspective on almost everything. He nearly finished his assignment in Lunana when the villager’s head told Ugyen to go back to Thimpu immediately because the winter already come. Lunana will covered in snow and such a condition will be hard for Ugyen because he won’t be able to go back. Ugyen insisted, but the decision is firm and unchangeable. So off he left, with a heavy heart. It was a precious experience in his life, a feeling he never anticipated before.  

When Bhutan was stated as the happiest country in the world, apparently, not everyone is happy. Ugyen rather wanted to seek happiness outside of his country. But through this movie we learn that happiness is the moment that we create with people we love, and that’s enough. Some things are more fundamental in life. It’s not always about glitter and success story, sometimes it’s all about accepting life as it is.


Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index


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