The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (奇門遁甲, Yuen Woo-ping, 2017)

Thousand faces of Dunjia poster 6The Dunjia has a thousand faces. Or maybe not. Yuen Woo-ping teams up with Tsui Hark for a “remake” of Yuen’s 1982 classic The Miracle Fighters retitled The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (奇門遁甲, Qíméndùnjiǎ), only it isn’t much of a remake at all and simply pinches the idea of supernaturally-charged heroes fighting for justice which, it has to be said, is hardly original or at least not enough to justify Tsui’s claim that the two films are linked by a desire to push the boundaries of the wuxia film. Nevertheless, Yuen does his best to craft a tale of brotherhood and rebirth for his noble warriors newly re-energised by a life-giving phoenix, but struggles under the weight of an otherwise incoherent narrative.

So, in fantasy medieval China, the land is beset by a stealth invasion from otherworldly powers. Our heroes, the Wuyin clan, are the last line of defence against the increasingly powerful alien marauders. In order to beat them, they need to unlock the mysterious power of Dunjia, which, according to a prophecy, can only be done by a very specific person. Accordingly, the clan’s “big brother”, Zhuge (Da Peng), has gone out looking. Unfortunately, not everyone is convinced by what he brings back – a young woman he found in some kind of institution who has a childish, ethereal quality and a surprising ability to suddenly morph into a giant colourful phoenix.

Yuen opens with a brief discussion of Qimen and the Dunjia which seems to have something to do with interdimensional co-ordinates but truth to tell it turns out not to be very important. The main thrust is that weird alien beings have been living amongst us for centuries and are quietly waiting for us to die out so that they can inherit the Earth. Only some of them have lost patience. The aliens might be about to get their hands on a world destroying device, something the Wuyin are desperate to prevent but the aliens keep using their abilities against them and their prospects look increasingly hopeless.

With the narrative in disarray, Yuen relies on the camaraderie between the members of the Wuyin to carry the film (which it largely does). There’s history between the de facto leader Dragonfly (Ni Ni) and healer Zhuge despite the Wuyin’s increasingly silly code which forbids affection between comrades and punishes it with mutual slapping. Accordingly the pair spend most of the film bickering while conflicted by the arrival of romantic rivals in the form of the mysterious Circle (Zhou Dongyu) and an earnest young policeman, Dao (Aarif Lee), who keeps stumbling on the activities of the Wuyin but has his memory wiped to prevent the truth getting out. Despite the plot holes and inconsistencies, the Wuyin are an intriguing bunch who do their best to earn our sympathies even whilst shouldered with a series of incomprehensible events.

Incomprehensibility is not necessarily a problem in a wuxia film, in fact it can sometimes be an asset, but the concept is continually let down by over reliance on poor quality CGI and bland production design. Yuen opens with an engaging, if surprisingly cutesy, sequence of Dao and Dragonfly enjoying a (re)meet cute while chasing a giant three-eyed fish through the streets of an ordinary city, but despite the resurgent beauty of Circle’s colourful phoenix the cartoonish battles between soulless alien mecha giants largely fail to convince.

Cartoonish though it may be, there is charm in Dunjia’s lowbrow humour as the gang bicker amongst themselves and engage in a comically romantic tug of war. Yuen breaks the tale into a series of chapters as if mimicking an old fashioned wuxia serial and there is certainly a strain of meandering fairytale nonsense in the film’s refusal to pick a direction and follow it even if it takes things too far with an all too abrupt ending designed only as an inelegant hook for an upcoming sequel. Ironically enough, Dunjia is a film about coming “full circle” and then being reborn anew like a phoenix from the flames but pushes itself too far in threatening to set the wheel turning again just when it ought to be hitting its stride. Flawed but intermittently entertaining, the first adventure fo the Wuyin clan is off to a rocky start but sheer charisma alone may be enough to ensure repeat custom.


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

To Live to Sing (活着唱着, Johnny Ma, 2019)

To Sing to Live poster 2“Boundless is the land for all to sing” according to the reverberating strains of a Sichuan Opera troupe practicing their art in the open air, ironically surrounded by the ruins of a decaying land. According to Chinese cinema at least, China is very much “under construction” though there is considerable ambivalence about the costs involved with such rapid “progress”. According to Johnny Ma’s second feature To Live to Sing (活着唱着, Hzhe Chàngzhe), Sichuan Opera maybe one of them though melancholy as it is and performed by real life opera stars, Ma’s film perhaps suggests that art’s transience is an unavoidable consequence of modernity.

We first meet our heroes, the Jinli Sichuan Opera Group, giving a small stage demonstration at a local cultural event straight after a team of high school girls in cheerleader uniforms inexpertly performing a traditional fan dance. Obviously running on a shoestring budget, the troupe gets around by means of a motorbike pickup truck which allows them to advertise on the road. Their main base, however, is a dilapidated theatre in a small corner of a rapidly depleting village.

The theatre, such as it is, is the only holdout surrounded by the rubble of the old town currently being “redeveloped” in keeping with the modern China. The wolf is quite literally at the door as the bulldozers’ claws tear through walls like an all powerful villain in an opera casting a spell of destruction over a disobedient kingdom. Leader of the company, Zhao Li has been ignoring the numerous “for demolition” tags all over the building hoping that something will come up, but now she’s had a letter to tell her that the end is nigh and she has no idea what to do.

Meanwhile, she’s also worrying about the future of the troupe seeing as they are all ageing and, according to her niece Dan Dan, Sichuan Opera isn’t “cool” anymore which why most of their audience members count themselves among the very elderly. Dan Dan, the troupe’s bright hope and leading lady, is conflicted in her role as a potential saviour. Mildly resentful at having been brought up in the trade, she both loves and rejects it, sorry to see it go but sure there is no future for traditional opera in the modern world. In her spare time she dances to K-pop hits alone in her room and, unbeknownst to Zhao Li until she’s guided by to the realisation by the manifestation of a stock Dwarf character, Dan Dan has taken a part-time job singing in a cabaret bar both to express herself and to earn a little extra money.

As the crisis deepens, the opera in Zhou Li’s head intensifies. Entering a dream stage, she finds herself once again in full costume valiantly battling villains only to emerge victorious but alone striking a heroic pose atop a pile of rubble. Worse, her fighting spirit threatens to harm those close to her including her beloved niece Dan Dan who longs to leave the world of opera behind but knows to do so would be to break her aunt’s heart. While her well-meaning husband goes behind her back to try and earn a few extra pennies by selling out the art of opera with a cheap “mask changing” act in a local hotpot restaurant, she makes use of a connection for a last ditch effort to get bureaucracy interested in her case by inviting a local dignitary to a show for which they’ll be pulling out all the stops, but also performing for free to make sure they get the punters in.

Zhao Li’s efforts prove fruitless. You can’t stop progress, after all. But, it’s not just the troupe who feel the sadness of something passing but the audiences too. With no performance scheduled, the old regulars dutifully show up to see the troupe off lamenting that there’s nothing left for them to do in this tiny, crumbling village. Sichuan Opera maybe be “uncool” to some, but it was the only splash of colour in an otherwise dull existence for many of the elderly residents and so it’s sad to say goodbye. At once signalling the tragedy of this moribund world and suggesting it’s time to let it go, Ma closes with a note of poignant, perhaps ironic positivity. “Boundless is the land for all to sing”, the Sichuan Opera troupe reminds us, rendering the ruined building that was its former home irrelevant as they offer their song to the open air for nothing more than the love of it.


To Live to Sing was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

So Long, My Son (地久天长, Wang Xiaoshuai, 2019)

So long my son poster 1“Time stopped moving for us a long time ago” the hero of Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (地久天长, Dì Jiǔ Tiān Cháng) sadly intones, a melancholy relic of another era lightyears away from the gleaming spires of the new China. Following two families over thirty years at the close of the 20th century, Wang’s film, perhaps unlike those of his contemporaries, is not so much quietly angry as filled with tremendous sadness and an unquiet grief for the things which were taken from those who found themselves betrayed by an unforgiving, rigidly oppressive regime.

In the early 1980s, two boys, brothers in all but blood, sit by a river. One is too timid to go in because he cannot swim, while the other, irritated, tries to coax his friend with the promise that they will stay by the shore and he will be there to protect him. Sometime later, we see that a boy has drowned, his parents running fast towards the hospital with the body in their arms but all to no avail. This single event, just one of many ordinary tragedies, is the fracturing point in lives of six previously close friends whose easy, familial relationship is instantly shattered by unspeakable guilt and irresolvable shame.

Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife Wang Liyun (Yong Mei) have lost their only son, Xingxing, but as someone later points out he needn’t have been their only son if weren’t for the oppressive and needlessly draconian One Child Policy. Haiyan (Ai Liya), the mother of the other boy Haohao and wife of Yaojun’s best friend Yingming (Xu Cheng), rose quickly in the party hierarchy following the end of the Cultural Revolution, becoming ambitious and seduced by her own sense of power. On learning that Liyun had become pregnant with a second child, she marched her friend to the hospital and forced her to undergo an abortion during which Liyun almost died and was left infertile.

The couple lose both their children in the same room, passing underneath the single character for “quiet” that tries to silence even their grief in the face of such cruelty. Silence comes to define their relationships with their former friends who are by turns unsure how to speak to them in the wake of intense tragedy, and fully aware of their complicity. Yaojun and Liyun forgive all. Having lost their own son they only want the best for Haohao, hoping that he is young enough to simply forget the incident and go on with his life, but as the older Haohao later says the guilt became like a tree inside of him that grew as he grew. The silence, more than the guilt or the sorrow, destroys their friendship and makes reconciliation impossible.

Betrayed again, Yaojun and Liyun are two of many laid off from their previously guaranteed government factory jobs following the market reforms of the late ‘80s. To escape their grief they exile themselves to Fujian where they know no one and do not speak the dialect. We discover that they live with a rebellious teenager named Xingxing and wonder if somehow their son survived only to realise later that they have adopted an orphaned boy in a misguided attempt to replace the child they lost. Divided by their grief and frustrated hopes, Yaojun and Liyun grow apart. He drinks to escape his intense resentment towards his powerlessness in an oppressive society, while she yearns to repair their broken family but fears that Yaojun has already moved away from her.

Meanwhile, the modern China leaves them behind. Yingming starts a business and becomes a wealthy man, while Yaojun struggles on with a small repair shop. The couple return to their hometown and the flat they once lived in to find it exactly as it was when they left, improbably surviving while the rest of the factory complex has long been torn down. The statue of Chairman Mao is still there, but now he stands incongruously outside a giant shopping mall offering ironic comment on China’s rapid progress towards rampant capitalist consumerism. Haiyan, filled with shame and remorse, seeks reconciliation near the end of her life, but as others point out no one blames her for doing her job – she was a victim of the system too, if perhaps a willingly complicit one who allowed fear and need for approval to overrule her sense of humanity. Those were dark days in which one might be arrested and perhaps killed just for dancing. Following emotional rather than temporal logic, Wang’s non-linear tale bounces through 30 years of history as its stoic protagonists attempt to endure the cruelty of their times, but eventually lands on a note of hopeful restitution in which the “Everlasting Friendship” is finally restored and the family repaired, the silence broken and time in motion once again.


So Long, My Son was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

First Love (初恋, Takashi Miike, 2019)

First love poster 1Taking a deep dive into Showa era nostalgia repurposed for the modern era, Takashi Miike returns to the world of jitsuroku excess with an ironic tale of honour and humanity. Quite literally all about the jingi, First Love (初恋. Hatsukoi) takes a pair of exiled loners betrayed by the older generation, and allows them to escape their sense of futility through simple human connection while the nihilistic gangster underworld slowly implodes all around them.

Sullen boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) is so filled with ennui that nothing really excites him, not even success in the ring. An unexpected KO, however, sends him off to the doctor’s where he is told that he has a possibly inoperable brain tumour and very little time left to live. That is perhaps why he decides to punch a policeman in defence of a young woman running away and desperately pleading for help. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), known as “Monica” to her captors, was sold to the yakuza by her father and has since become dependent on drugs. Little known to either Leo or Yuri, they are about to become embroiled in a long brewing turf war between the local yakuza and the Chinese Triads engineered by jaded underling Kase (Shota Sometani) who has enlisted rogue policeman Ohtomo (Nao Omori) to help in a plan to steal his gang’s drug supply and have Ohtomo sell it on in the same way he does with “confiscated” narcotics while blaming the whole thing on the Chinese.

Abandoned at birth, Leo is a man who doesn’t know his history and so doesn’t know himself. He tells a reporter that there is no particular reason that he boxes save that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, yet the fighter’s all that remains and “boxer” has become his entire identity. A passing fortune teller advises him that he loses because he only fights for himself and if he truly wants to win he needs to learn to fight for someone else, but Leo is used to being alone and believes he has no need of other people. Knowing he’s going to die means, paradoxically, that he has infinite potential because he has nothing left to lose.

Leo punching out the policeman reawakens in Yuri a memory of her “first love”, a high school classmate who tried to defend her against her abusive father whose ghost still haunts her in drug-fuelled hallucinations. The ultimate proof of the yakuza’s ironic lack of “jingi” or “honour and humanity” when it comes to the treatment of women, Yuri was betrayed first by her father and then by the petty street thug who got her hooked on drugs as a means of control and exploited her body for financial gain.

Ironically enough, it’s a Chinese Triad who proves the ultimate heir to “jingi” having come to Japan because of her love for classic Toei gangster hero Ken Takakura only to discover that kind of nobility is something you only see in the movies. While the yakuza lament that they’re at a disadvantage fighting the Chinese because they don’t need to worry about “honour” as dictated by their code, they are quick enough to scream vengeance when Kase convinces them that it was the Triads who offed their street fixer (Takahiro Miura) to get back at recently released gangster Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) who is the reason that the Triad boss is nicknamed One-Armed-Wang. Gondo and Wang are already on a collision course as representatives of their respective ideologies with Gondo perhaps the last true yakuza standing, faithful to his code to the end.

Sensing his strong sense of jingi, the romantic Triad allows Leo to escape with Yuri as if recognising that neither of them belong in this nihilistic world of pointless and internecine violence. Despite proclaiming that he had no need of other people, it’s Leo’s humanity that eventually saves him as he realises that he was always going to die and rediscovers his true strength through fighting to protect someone else. Yuri, meanwhile, finds the will to live again in making peace with the past and laying old ghosts to rest thanks to Leo’s altruistic decision to protect her. Echoing Fukasaku’s classic crime cycle in its severed heads and funky ‘70s jazz score remixing the iconic theme tune, Miike ups the ante with a series of outlandishly idiosyncratic gags as Kase’s nefarious scheme snowballs into a darkly humorous crescendo of ridiculous brutality, but ultimately rejects the futility of a world without jingi in allowing his pure hearted heroes the possibility of escape, saved rather than consumed by their sense of honour and humanity.


First Love was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yibai, Guan Hu, Xue Xiaolu, Xu Zheng, Ning Hao, Wen Muye, 2019)

My People My COuntry poster 3Oct. 1, 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Supervised by Chen Kaige, My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Wǒ hé Wǒ dě Zǔguó) presents seven short films by seven directors featuring several notable historical events from the past 70 years though not quite one for every decade (perhaps for obvious reasons). Though different in tone, what each of the segments has in common is the desire to root these national events in the personal as they were experienced by ordinary people rather than how the history books might have chosen to record them.

Told in roughly chronological order, the film opens with the founding of the Republic as comedian Huang Bo plays an eccentric engineer charged with ensuring the operation of an automatic flag pole doesn’t embarrass Chairman Mao at the big moment. In the context of the film as a whole which is fond of flags, this is rather odd because every other flag in the film is raised by hand usually by a soldier taking the responsibility extremely seriously. Yet the point is less the flag itself than the symbolic pulling together of the community to find a solution to a problem. Realising the metal on the stopper is too brittle, the engineers put out an appeal for more with seemingly the entire town turning up with everything from rusty spoons to grandma’s necklace and even a set of gold bars!

This same sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good works its way into almost all of the segments beginning with the story of China’s first atom bomb in the ‘60s for which a pure hearted engineer (Zhang Yi) first of all sacrifices his one true love and then the remainder of his life when he exposes himself to dangerous radiation all in the name of science, while in the film’s most charming episode a young boy is devastated to realise his crush is moving abroad and has to choose between chasing after her and fixing up a TV aerial so his village can see China beat the US at volleyball during the ’84 Olympics. Visions of flag waving glory eventually convince him where his duty lies, but his sacrifice is later rewarded twice over as he becomes a little local hero even if temporarily heartbroken in the way only a small boy can be.

Then again, some people are just a little self-centred like the hero (Ge You) of Ning Hao’s Welcome to Beijing who keeps trying to reconnect with his earnest teenage son only to end up connecting with a fatherless young boy during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chen Kaige’s sequence, meanwhile, is inspired by the story of two earthbound astronauts but similarly finds two roguish, orphaned young men connecting with a patient father figure who is able to bring them “home” by showing them a space miracle in the middle of the desert, and in the final and perhaps most directly propagandistic sequence, a tomboyish fighter pilot eventually overcomes her resentment at being relegated to a supporting role to rejoice in her colleagues’ success. Despite the overly militaristic jingoism of the parades with their obvious showcasing of China’s military power, Wen Muye’s “One for All” is in its own sense surprisingly progressive in its advancement of gender equality and mildly subversive LGBT positive themes were it not for a shoehorned in scene featuring a milquetoast “boyfriend”.

Sensitivity is not, however, very much in evidence in the sequence relating to the extremely topical issue of the Hong Kong handover. Out of touch at best, the constant references to the continuing reunification of the One China are likely to prove controversial though admittedly those they would most upset are unlikely to want to sit through a 2.5hr propaganda epic celebrating the achievements of Chinese communism. Nevertheless, it is a little galling to see the “return” to China so warmly embraced by the people of Hong Kong given current events in the city. This perhaps ill-judged sequence is the most overt piece of direct propaganda included in the otherwise unexpectedly subtle series which, despite the flag waving and eventual tank parade, tries to put the spotlight back on ordinary people living ordinary lives through the history of modern China. Of course, that necessarily also means that it leaves a lot out, deliberately refusing to engage with the less celebratory elements of China’s recent history, even as it closes with the fiercely patriotic song of the title performed by some of the ordinary heroes who have inspired its various tales of everyday heroism.


Original trailer featuring Faye Wong’s cover of the well known patriotic anthem from 1985 (no subtitles)

Wet Season (热带雨, Anthony Chen, 2019)

West season posterA middle-aged woman and teenage boy meet at opposite ends of loneliness only for their frustrated connection to end in a destructive act of misplaced desires in Anthony Chen’s acutely observed melodrama, Wet Season (热带雨, Rèdài Yù). Reuniting with Ilo Ilo’s Yeo Yann Yann and Koh Jia Ler, Chen spins a differing tale of fracturing families as his heroine, a perpetual outsider, finds escape in simulacrum but fails to realise the implications of her attempt to nurture a lonely child.

A Mandarin teacher at a local high school, Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) has been undergoing intensive IVF treatment with her emotionally distant husband, Andrew (Christopher Lee Meng Soon), for the last eight years. Repeated disappointments have placed a strain on their relationship and it seems to Ling that Andrew has already given up, rarely coming with her to the clinic and drawing away from her physically and emotionally. Though they have a housekeeper to help during the day, Ling is also the primary carer for Andrew’s bedridden father (Yang Shi Bin) who, despite his kindness and inability to communicate directly, displays only contempt for his son’s continuing moral cowardice.

Unappreciated at home, Ling fares little better in her professional life. It’s clear that no-one takes Chinese language terribly seriously as an academic subject and she remains isolated at school as a Malaysian Mandarin speaker in a largely Anglophone environment with a rather old-fashioned colonial perspective that English is the only useful language. She tries her best to teach her disinterested students, but finds them uncooperative save one young boy, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), who develops a sudden interest in Chinese after imprinting on Ling when she offers to drive him home after running into him at the hospital and discovering no one was coming to fetch him.

Wei Lun’s parents are of the absentee kind, but apparently very keen that he do well in Chinese so he can eventually do business in China. The only student to turn up for remedial classes, Wei Lun starts getting a lot of individual attention, something that arouses the suspicion of a nosy neighbour in his apartment building who also happens to be a chemistry teacher at the school. The pair grow closer with Ling introducing him to her father-in-law who also takes to the boy, allowing him to fill a painful absence at the family table as the son and grandson they never had while he gains the loving attention of a devoted family ready to support him and celebrate his successes.

Yet brought together by shared loneliness, there’s an essential conflict in their differing desires as Ling remains, perhaps wilfully, oblivious to Wei Lun’s obvious crush which runs to something awkwardly maternal and deeper than your average teenage fixation on a sympathetic teacher. As the storms intensify, they seem set on a destructive collision course, approaching the same problem from opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide.

Battling her internalised sense of failure as a wife and mother in her inability to bear a child along with her professional irrelevance as a teacher of “unnecessary” Chinese, Ling finds validation in Wei Lun’s obvious need, allowing herself to feel “wanted” but perhaps misinterpreting that desire in Wei Lun’s adolescent confusion in which the familial and the romantic become hopelessly blurred. Momentary lapse aside, Ling remains essentially maternal, hoping to comfort Wei Lun as he endures his first heartbreak. “My heart hurts”, he tells her, “That’s how it is” she explains to him sadly, “you’ll get used it”.

Stormy weather and reports of civil unrest in Malaysia as an embittered populace rises up against state corruption echo Ling’s sense of anxious hopelessness as she attempts to find accommodation with life’s disappointments, her imploding marriage, and the impossibility of escape. For her at least the storm clouds eventually lift and the rainy season comes to an end giving way to a brighter future and a new start born of the total destruction of the old. Chen’s tale of misplaced desires and ill-defined relationships may be an overfamiliar one, but handled with care and universal empathy. Refusing judgment, Chen’s camera observes its fragile protagonists as they seek escape from their pain and loneliness through the illusion of connection while the storm inside intensifies. Having endured the rains, Ling rediscovers the light, claiming her right to happiness and leaving the wet season far behind.


Wet Season was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Pawo Choyning Dorji, 2019)

Lunana posterBhutan is, apparently, the happiest place on Earth so why would anyone want to leave it? The Gross National Happiness Project does not seem to have touched the hearts of the young in Pawo Choyning Dorji’s first directorial feature Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. Highly Westernised and dreaming of consumerist success, these youngsters have their sights set on overseas, unimpressed with the kind of “happiness” packaged to them at home.

20-something Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is a civil servant serving out his government contract as a teacher while hoping to emigrate to Australia and pursue his dreams of becoming a musician. Ugyen’s conservative grandma may think that a government job is its own kind of success, unable to understand why anyone would want to give it up when so many are striving for just that, but to Ugyen it’s a kind a kind of prison that wants to trap him in a life of dull conventionality. That might be why he’s currently rated among the worst teachers on the payroll with a little more than a year still to run on his term of service. To buck up his ideas, or maybe just as a kind of punishment, the local authority decides that Ugyen should be the one sent up the mountain to Lunana, one of the most remote villages in the country, where they are desperately in need of a new teacher. Ugyen doesn’t really have any choice but to go along with it, hoping that his visa will have come through by the time he gets back which will, after all, only be a few months because the school closes for winter during which the village is cut off by heavy snow.

Lunana is indeed a remote place. You can’t get there by train, or by bus, or even it seems by donkey. From the closet station it’s an eight day walk through rough mountain terrain and city boy Ugyen is not exactly one for hiking. He buys a fancy pair of walking boots, only for his guides to turn up in wellies and forge ahead with steadfast determination, while he ignores their roadside rituals and rolls his eyes at all of this untouched natural beauty. The villagers turn up to great him at a waypoint two hours out from the main settlement so they can all walk back together, and though he remains polite Ugyen cannot hide his resentment on arrival, flatly telling them that the village is even worse than he thought it would be and he wants to turn round and go straight back home.

With only 56 residents and a handful of children, the village runs along ancient rhythms but modernity penetrates even here and the children are enormously excited about the new teacher and how much they are going to learn now that the school will be opening again. Ugyen asks them what they want to be when they grow up and receives some surprising answers – one girl says she wants to be of service to the king, another wants to be a singer, and the lone boy professes that he wants to be a teacher because “teachers touch the future”. Not exactly a deep thinker and somewhat dismissive of his occupation, Ugyen is impressed and chastened by the boy’s answer. Disappointed by the “school’s” primitivism – essentially just an empty stone room, he enlists some of the adult villagers to craft a makeshift blackboard, figuring out how he can replicate chalk with charcoal, and getting a city friend to send some modern equipment such as colourful posters and a new ball for the kids’ improvised basketball court.

Unable to charge his iPod with the temperamental solar power, Ugyen begins to realise that he is in fact living in the world of song where the yak farmers value the ability to sing above all else. One of the village’s pretty young women, Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), is particularly famed for her rendition of a sad folksong about a yak farmer who has to say goodbye his beloved yak when it is decided it has to be sacrificed for the village. While learning how to live the traditional life – starting fires with dried yak dung and singing for the joy of it, Ugyen begins to see the advantages of simplicity. Life in the village is hard, but the people are kind and happy with what they have. Ugyen may not quite be able to let go of his Australian dream, even as he scrawls folksong lyrics over his prized leaflet, but takes something of Lunana with him in his new respect for his roots and the soulful contemplation of the mountains.


Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)