Karma Wangel and Thilen Lhondup struggle to find their way on life's journey in Himalaya.
Karma Wangel and Thilen Lhondup struggle to find their way on life's journey in Himalaya.

Mountain Do

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, the filmmakers spin a tale of the circular nature of the cosmos, but 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 cinematic vision. Blending elements of cinema verité, time-honored tradition and fictional narrative, the film presents engrossing performances by a mostly provincial, nonprofessional cast. Director Eric Valli, who has lived in Nepal since 1983, clearly knows the rugged terrain and its people (his books and photos have garnered the Gurka Dakshin Baho award from the country's king), and his dedication to the land translates into a powerful and universal story.

Looking very much like a remote outpost from some sci-fi universe (but without a whit of digital enhancement), the central village of the film 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 (Thilen Lhondup), quizzes his optimistic grandson, Tsering (Karma Wangel), 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.



In Tibetan with English subtitles

This presents a dilemma, as the aging Tinle had been prepping his son to take over for him as commander-in-chief. 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? Tsering is the obvious choice, but despite his inquisitive nature ("How many lives does it take to become chief?" he asks his grandpa), 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 are able to paint portraits rich with ethnography. Some may fill the screen with mountains majestic and dangerous. Others may revel in the vestiges of a vanishing culture. The joy of Valli's film is that he does all this at once, shifting gracefully between craggy ravines and weather-worn faces, 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. (It also made this critic's Top 10 list last year.) The film's Tibetan content has even prompted the government of China to withhold the film from screens across India. It's a valuable document, and -- having been shot in 1997-98 -- one that has waited patiently for release.

That alone could be adequate recommendation, but this is also an exciting and accessible movie, filled with intelligence and humor. The charge between ardent young Karma (who resembles a cross between 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 that he has much to learn from the wise and wizened one.

The supporting players are equally strong. As Tsering (renamed Passang to confound demons along the path), young Wangel is a radiant harbinger of hopeful horizons. Tsamchoe -- who made her film debut in Jean Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet -- affords the film 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 provides 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, as well as technical advisor Michel Debats, who supervised this nine-month shoot at delirious altitudes. 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. Finally, Bruno Coulais's impressionistic West-meets-East score blends traditional Tibetan elements with a string ensemble and a Corsican polyphonic group -- an adventure in itself.

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.


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