Himalaya does for yak caravans what Red River did for cattle drives: it sees them as the stuff of epic conquest.
Its characters overcome hazardous landscapes, deprivation and their own competitive disputes. They arrive at their destination and at a better understanding of themselves.
Director Eric Valli has confessed, "The film is a sort of Western - a Tibetan Western."
It's Red River as a Buddhist John Ford might have made it. Instead of John Wayne's grizzled cattle boss there is Tinle (Thilen Lhondup), an old chief in the remote Dolpo region of Nepal; instead of Wayne's surrogate son, Montgomery Clift, there is Karma (Gurgon Kyap), an upstart whom Tinle wrongly suspects killed his older son. The action doesn't play out with whiplashings and showdowns as it does in Howard Hawks' marvelous, dry-land version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Director Valli emphasizes (as Ford would have) these men grousing and fighting their way into a renewal of tradition. Himalaya's kinetic beauty is equally fierce and healing.
When the time comes to load salt on the yaks and trade it in distant towns for a winter's worth of food, Karma sets out early with a young group of rebels. Tinle waits for the village elders to announce the divine time of departure, then embarks with old comrades, his older son's widow, his grandson, and his second son, a monk and painter who joins the caravan out of filial devotion. Like Ford, Valli finds a moving visual majesty in the fragile diagonals that Tinle and his group etch on the screen as they trek across the Himalayas.
In one sequence of unyielding suspense, Tinle, desperate to overcome Karma's four-day head start and prove his leadership, directs his men and yaks toward a slender ledge overlooking a mountain lake. The lip of the ledge falls away and is swiftly rebuilt; the caravan keeps moving as the makeshift repairs crumble. The episode's resonance goes beyond good men overcoming a physical obstacle. We wonder whether Tinle is right when he says the losses he incurs will satisfy the lake road's demons.
For Himalaya takes place in a universe ordered by gods. Tinle understands and tries to trick them; Karma ignores them at his peril. The movie doesn't insist on every aspect of the supernatural. But Valli sees a connection between (in his words) the characters' belief "in the power of nature" and their "knowledge of the sacred."
When Tinle predicts an impending snowstorm despite the clear blue skies surrounding him, he might be divinely inspired; he might know the mountains better than Karma; and he might just be lucky. What's undeniable is that the interconnected lives of his community reflect Tinle's belief in an interconnected cosmos. He's a loud bantam rooster of a man, with an enormous charisma that's rooted in his certitude. Every character in Tinle's orbit partakes of his scruffy splendor.
The cast of non-professionals occasionally may be inexpressive. But they move through the grasslands and treeless mountainsides with an authority that's eloquent even in its awkwardness. Lhakpa Tsamchoe is moodily gorgeous as Tinle's widowed daughter-in-law; she and Gurgon Kyap's Karma lock eyes and smolder together at a distance. And Karma Wangiel is blessedly un-actory and spontaneous as Tinle's grandson.
But the most moving performance is that of Karma Tenzing Nyima Lama as Tinle's second son, Norbou. When he tells Tinle that he joined the caravan not to influence the succession of power but as a son who cares for his father, the moment has an emotional perfection. It imbues Tinle with all the splendor and vulnerability of mortality.
Norbou believes that paintings complete themselves. In Himalaya, Valli creates a movie with the same aesthetic tingle.
Starring Thilen Lhondup and Gurgon Kyap
Directed by Eric Valli
Released by Kino
Running time 103 minutes
Sun score *** 1/2