Those expecting Himalaya to focus upon the beloved traveling carnival ride known for its liberal use of Def Leppard ("Do you wanna go faster?") are in for a few surprises. For one, this sensuous, exotic film is more like an issue of National Geographic come to life, rich with cultural detail and insight. Its epic sense of adventure reminds one of the work of Akira Kurosawa and John Ford. Also, although the filmmakers spin the circular nature of the cosmos, this ride won't leave you dizzy, but rather impassioned and invigorated.
Set in the Dolpo region of northwestern Nepal -- and strongly attuned to Tibetan culture -- Himalaya presents a unique vision. Blending elements of cinema verité, time-honored tradition and fictional narrative, the film presents engrossing performances from a mostly provincial, nonprofessional cast. Director Eric Valli, who has lived in Nepal since 1983, clearly knows the rugged terrain and its people, and his dedication to the land translates into a powerful and universal story.
Looking much like a remote outpost from some sci-fi universe, the central village is a rough-hewn stone citadel flanked on all sides by precipitous peaks and plunging gorges. A state of imbalance is quickly introduced. While the prideful elder chieftain Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup) quizzes his optimistic grandson Passang (Karma Wangiel) about the sustainability of their limited reserves of grain, the group's yak caravan returns, bearing tragedy. The roguish Karma (Gurgon Kyap) carries the village's priceless commodity -- sacks and sacks of salt -- but he also bears the body of Tinle's son, Lhakpa, whose intrepid spirit has led to his demise.
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This presents a dilemma, as the aging Tinle had been prepping his son to take over as commander-in-chief until the accident. Mourning ensues, with Karma trying to comfort Lhakpa's somber, beautiful widow, Pema (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), while Tinle, outraged, insensitively rebukes her. With Lhakpa gone, who will lead the caravan? Passang is the obvious choice, but despite his inquisitive nature, he's still just a child. Suddenly, the elder discovers he must battle Karma to lead the yaks through the treacherous mountain passes, to trade their salt for survival in the "valley of grain."
Talented directors may paint portraits rich with ethnography (see Tony Gatlif's entrancing documentary Latcho Drom). Some may fill the screen with mountains majestic and dangerous (from John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King). Others still may revel in the vestiges of a vanishing culture (Abraham Polonsky's powerful Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here). The joy of Valli's film is that he does all this at once, delivering intense drama at no expense to incredible authenticity. Talk about keepin' it real.
Indeed, Himalaya is an important film, garnering Nepal's first nomination for an Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film) as well as two Césars from its run in France. The film's Tibetan content has even prompted the government of China -- a lovely nation in many other ways -- to ban the movie from screens across India. It's a valuable document, and -- having been shot in 1997-1998 -- one that has waited patiently for release. (It was previously known as Caravan.)
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That alone could be adequate recommendation, but fortunately this is also an exciting and accessible film, filled with intelligence and humor. The charge between ardent young Karma (who resembles a mix of Toshiro Mifune and Jim Morrison) and obdurate oldster Tinle (his country's answer to Grumpy Old Men) crackles with antagonism and, ultimately, hard-won concessions. It would have been easy to stage their competitive treks as the sole source of conflict, but Valli and co-writer Olivier Dazat (with assists from several other scribes) reveal these characters as components of an elusive oneness. "Hatred has never eased grief," Karma warns his elder early on, but he also discovers he has much to learn from the wise and wizened one.
The supporting players are equally strong. As Passang, young Wangiel is a radiant harbinger of hopeful horizons. Tsamchoe, who made her film debut in Jean Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet, provides a subtle but vital sense of grace. Another standout is Karma Tenzing Nyima Lama, who portrays Norbou, Tinle's other adult son, a painter who has studied in a monastery since age eight. A classic reluctant hero, he offers inspiration to thwart the cruel elements. Repeating the words of his master, he explains, "When two paths open up before you, always choose the harder one."
This advice appears to have been heeded by Valli's superb crew. Obviously, bows to the cinematographers, Eric Guichard and Jean-Paul Meurisse, are in order. Commonly unsung heroes like sound editor Gina Rignier and recordists Denis Guilhem and Denis Martin also deserve attention; their crackling fires, lowing yaks and crashing rocks truly put the viewer in the picture.
For all its spiritual intensity, however, Himalaya never loses its sense of humanity. Ill-prepared for such a long journey, Norbou first proves himself rather clumsy with the yaks. "If you pray to the gods like that, I'll bet you scare them!" bleats Tinle, without missing a beat. By infusing his characters with awkwardness and vulnerability, Valli gives Westerners an opportunity to relate, rather than alienating a huge chunk of his potential audience with arrogant solemnity. On this voyage of discovery, when a storm descends and the skeletal fingers of doom threaten to crush our heroes, we're right there with them.