“Being happy should be easy — we have our pick of sweet smells, sunlight, massages, natural views and uplifting music. However, even if we accept such invitations to sensual pleasure, we might still find a good mood elusive. . . . The problem lies in the human mind, which filters, screens, censors, and ultimately passes final judgement on our overall happiness. The surge from good experiences to good feelings can easily be blocked by the negative internal stories we tell ourselves.”
— David Sobel and Robert Ornstein in Healthy Pleasures
Twenty-something Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) lives in Bhutan, a country set in the spectacular mountain regions of the Eastern Himalayas between China and India. It is most known as measuring success by the nation’s “gross national happiness.” Ugyen lives in the city with his grandmother, (Tsheri Zom) who is very proud that he has already completed four years of a five-year government contract as a school teacher.
But this career choice has lost its hold on Ugyen who now wants to move to Australia and become a professional singer. Like many of his peers, he’s attracted to the glittery Western world of the media and popular culture accessed through his phone. In his mind, he sees himself as doing something entirely different in a new place in order to be happy.
His supervisor’s response to his attitude is to post him to Lunana, a tiny village of 56 people that is a six-days walk into the mountains. It is, in fact, the world’s most remote school. (The film was shot in this actual location, and since there was no electricity, they had to use cameras operating from solar-powered batteries.)
Despite being greeted by the entire village upon his arrival after a physically exhausting journey, Ugyen feels isolated. He is shocked to find that his room is spartan with no running water or electricity; for heat he needs to burn yak dung. His classroom doesn’t even have a blackboard, and supplies for the children are limited. He tells the village chief, Asha (Kunzang Wangdi) that he wants to return home as soon as possible.
Happiness is a mysterious emotion which can turn us around and change our plans and dreams. In Ugyen’s case, two developments contribute to his transformation. The children are thrilled to have a new teacher — he’s greeted on his first day of teaching by the vibrant smile of nine-year-old Pem Sam (Pem Zam), and soon he realized he can make a difference here, even if he does have to leave before the snows come.
And then there is music. Himself a singer, Ugyen is enchanted when he hears Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), a beautiful young woman, singing in the hills. She explains that this is her offering: “It’s a song I offer to all beings, to all the people, to the animals, the gods, to all the spirits in our valley. When the black-necked cranes sing, they sing not worrying who hears or what others think. They sing to offer. I want to sing like that.” Ugyen asks her to teach him a song about a yak herder and soon they are practicing together.
During the trek to the village, his companions, Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup) and Singye (Tshering Doril), made offerings on the mountain pass for their safe journey. Now Ugyen brings his own gifts to the village, having his guitar sent so he can sing with the children, and getting teaching supplies for the classroom. In turn, Saldon brings him one of the village yaks, Norbu (meaning “wish fulfilling jewel”), to keep inside the school so he won’t have to gather dung in the fields.
In one of her memoirs, May Sarton wrote that it is wrong to expect that there will be a time of happiness in our lives. Rather, there are moments of happiness, “almost every day [contains] at least one moment of happiness.” This film is filled with moments of happiness — from a pause to gaze at the beauty of the mountains, to the joy of singing “Old McDonald” with a group of dancing children, to food shared in a special wooden bowl, to reading a letter from his students: “You showed us the importance of having good hearts.” This film will show you that as well.