1) No Brad Pitt. Valli worked on the Brad Pitt film Seven Years in Tibet, which showcased Pitt and his pathetic German accent trekking the Himalayas and befriending the Dalai Lama. Instead of the overpaid, perfect-toothed Pitt, we get real people from Nepal portraying themselves, in roles that demand good acting and a credible screen presence.
2) Unspoiled Tibetan culture. While Tibet has been occupied by China since 1950, Nepal has maintained the integrity of its borders, especially in the remote northwest region of Dolpo, where Tibetan Buddhism has thrived side-by-side with Indian Hinduism and other non-Western influences. Refugees from Tibet are prominent in Himalaya, as are a bona fide monk and other Dolpo men, women and children with tangible ties to an ancient homeland.
3) Biblical-looking peaks covered in snow. Spending $8.50 to see Himalaya is cheaper (and less exhausting) than flying to Katmandu and bussing it to the base of the highest mountains in the world. Climbing those majestic peaks would take weeks. With Himalaya, we are transported there via celluloid for 104 minutes and treated to vistas that have inspired generations of people around the world.
4) Yaks. Lots and lots of yaks. Himalaya is what you might call a yak movie -- indeed, it's a Tibetan Western of sorts. Dolpo's annual yak caravan is the center of the film, showing off the herd of animals that transport pounds and pounds of white salt to the lowlands. The grueling downward trek is vital to the Dolpopas' existence, letting them exchange the salt for grain and other necessities.
5) Gripping storyline. Though the film is closely based on reality (Valli lived in Dolpo for years), Himalaya isn't a documentary -- it's a fictionalized account of life among the Dolpopas, which means the movie has death, romance, revenge, chaos, and emotional contours. The characters named Tinle and Karma dominate the film, giving it a friction that sustains Himalaya for the full 104 minutes. Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup) is an old chief who blames Karma (Gurgyon Kyap) for his son's death. When Karma wants to embark on an early caravan, ignoring the date set by ancient ritual, Tinle turns him down. Karma takes his herd anyway, followed four days later by Tinle and his entourage. Dueling caravans create powerful drama on Nepal's stormy mountaintops.
6) Viscerally moving soundtrack. The songs that accompany Himalaya (original work by Bruno Coulais) feature Tuva-like throat singing, fragments of whispers, chants and shouts, orchestral chimes and strings, and dreamy melodies that -- by themselves -- are worth the price of admission.
The bottom line: Seeing Himalaya is to bear witness to a proud and rich people. Valli, who divides his time among Katmandu, Paris, and Los Angeles, is a longtime National Geographic photographer who made several documentaries before tackling this full-length feature film. Here he has made the type of movie that could -- and should -- be made more often by the studios. Applaud him.
Aka Himalaya - l'enfance d'un chef.
Climb every mountain.
Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 15th December 1999
Distributed by: Kino International
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Fresh: 47 Rotten: 6
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Eric Valli