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The movie camera defies gravity in Himalaya, an action picture with yaks set 12,000 feet above sea level. French documentarian Eric Valli, an author and National Geographic photographer, has lived in Nepal for nearly two decades. His visually dazzling debut feature draws upon his intimate knowledge of the remote Dolpo region and its people.
There, Nepalese power struggles stretch beyond palace intrigues to the most distant recesses of Tibetan culture. Himalaya opens as Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup), an old village chieftain, confronts the body of his eldest son, brought back by a yak caravan from the mountains. Tinle blames Karma (Gurgon Kyap), a young cowboy, for the mysterious death. He nominates his small grandson, Passang, as chief and proposes they lead the village’s caravan together on its yearly trek to trade salt for grain. The upstart Karma departs before the traditional date, begging Pema, Passang’s mother, to join him. But Pema (Lhakpa Tsamchoe, from Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet, which made her the region’s first international movie star) refuses to betray her father-in-law. Together with Tinle’s second son (a tender young lama), and a few elderly caravaners, they set out on their harsh journey.
There’s plenty of suspense along the way, as lines of yaks bearing salt snake along cliffsides and through snowstorms. Cinematographers Eric Guichard and Jean-Paul Meurisse present a pristine window onto a spectacular, hidden world, where the bodies of the deceased are hacked to bits in order to provide food for vultures and snow-capped peaks rise above verdant valleys. This pure vision of an untouched culture is a lure, but it’s also a liability, since purity inspires awe, and awe (as in Annaud’s film) may lead to ponderousness. Tinle’s mingled rage and grief strike a powerful note, but his conflict with Karma is as heavy and inevitable as a yak’s footfall. In Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup, Tibetan monks exiled in India are obsessed with the World Cup soccer tournament; the film unfolds in an environment “contaminated” by Western culture where empty soda cans sit on a lama’s altar, and yet it’s animated by a Buddhist spirit. Himalaya lacks such lightness, humor, and grace, offering instead the surface beauty of an ancient and inviolate culture.