HIMALAYA—-take the Rockies and drop the Alps on top of them. If, like me, you are into mountains, they’re nirvana. For a visit, anyway; they’re a little harder to exist in. Mirroring that, this 1999 adventure has some stunning imagery, backed by an evocative soundtrack, but it’s regrettably flat as drama, and slow as a plodding trek, minus the exercise. The only film from Nepal to have received an Oscar nomination (for Foreign Film), its remote setting—the high-altitude, culturally Tibetan Dolpo region of western Nepal—and the immersive, clearly arduous location work are enough to warrant and reward a viewing, though your patience over the 108 minutes may need as much prodding as the yaks they herd in order to keep from nodding off. A coffee-table book, National Geographic style: looks good while you’re in the waiting room. And the music’s better.
Villagers from the remote mountain province bordering China must caravan salt to the lowlands to trade for grain that will see them through the winter. When the chieftain’s heir dies in an accident, conflict arises over who will take charge of the precious yak herd, the vital salt, their very security. The aging chief resents a younger challenger, who scorns the old ways (heed the Gods and mind the demons) but is certainly more fit than the old man. At odds, two separate caravans leave and face the perils of the trail and climate. It’s Red River with yaks instead of cattle. Minus the excitement.
The story behind the making of the film is at least (maybe more) interesting than the plot, as the moviemakers were so stymied by weather and transport hassles that the planned 2-month-long shoot took eight months to complete. The allotted budget went north, eventually consuming $4,400,000. With French and Swiss backers, a mostly French crew worked with an all-local cast, nearly all of them untrained as actors (most never having even seen a movie). Eric Valli directed. He’d been living in Nepal for 15 years and had done documentaries prior to this project. Valli wrote the screenplay (with input from four other writers) and had assist in direction from Michel Debats.
The script’s problem is having the characters go over & over the same arguments throughout the trip, and most of that back & forth comes off like a samurai movie, where people bark dialogue at each other. The old guy’s continual bullying wears thin. It may be culturally accurate, and you can nod politely at your couch-based broad-mindedness, but it gets wearying, and carries little emotional resonance since everyone is so stubborn you can’t like them much, let alone relate.
That leaves the rarefied setting, which will be enough, as it’s so unusual and striking, captured by excellent camerawork from Eric Guichard and Jean-Paul Meurisse. The beautiful music score was done by Bruno Coulais, who helped Winged Migration take flight. It touches an epic grandeur that the script left wanting.
Not a winner as drama, but for sure an impressive production effort, it grossed $21,069,000. Lead players: Thilen Londup, Gurgon Kyap, Lhakpa Tsamchoe (you may recall from Seven Years In Tibet), Karma Wangell and Karma Tensing.