Peak Performance

Towering Himalaya scales new heights in Tibetan cinema

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 cinematic vision. Blending elements of cinema vérité, 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 (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 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 Tsering (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.

This presents a dilemma, as the aging Tinle had been prepping his son to take over for him 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? 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 may paint portraits rich with ethnography (see Tony Gatlif's entrancing documentary of Gypsy musicians, Latcho Drom). Some may fill the screen with mountains majestic and dangerous (from John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King to Martin Campbell's Vertical Limit). Others still may revel in the vestiges of a vanishing culture (Abraham Polonsky's powerful Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, featuring Robert Blake as an errant Native American). 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.) It's a valuable document, and -- having been shot in 1997-98 -- one that has waited patiently for release (it was previously known as Caravan).

That alone could be adequate recommendation but, fortunately, this is also an exciting and accessible movie, 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 Tsering (renamed Passang to confound demons along the path), young Wangiel 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 8. 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 adviser Michel Debats, who supervised this nine-month shoot at delirious altitudes. 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. Finally, Bruno Coulais' impressionistic West-meets-East score blends traditional Tibetan elements with a string ensemble and a Corsican polyphonic group, an adventure in itself.

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