We've seen the story told in Himalaya before, but we've never seen it told in quite this way. And, frankly, as many times as we might have experienced this particular tale, we've rarely seen it look so damned gorgeous. Himalaya is the story of two men filled with unspoken, grudging admiration for one another, but locked in a great, symbolic struggle anyway. It's the story of old ways versus new, of a journey both physical and internal, and of the perpetuation of something that, much as it makes our skin crawl to summon up the phrase, can only be thought of as The Circle of Life.
What really sets Himalaya apart from the scads of similar-sounding movies (most of which, as you might expect, are Hollywood products) is the fact that it is, as its director describes it, a "Tibetan Western." The movie takes place high in the Himalaya mountains in the Dolpo region of Northwestern Nepal, and its "actors" are real people, nonprofessionals playing what amounts to versions of themselves. That cranky, colorful old chief who serves as the movie's main character is played by a real chief, just as the numerous other characters in the film are also essentially true to their real-life persona. That sense of reality and naturalness happily informs the movie's every frame.
The man who directed Himalaya, Eric Valli, is a former travel writer and National Geographic photographer who lived in Dolpo for many years, and the events we see transpire in the film are closely based on things that Valli actually saw happen. (Valli was also apparently associated with Seven Years in Tibet, but try not to hold that against him.)
The film's cinematography, as you might imagine, is some of the most effortlessly beautiful you'll ever see. I say effortlessly because the striking images are not at all the creation of digital trickery, or special lenses or filters. They're not even so much the result of a particularly talented eye behind the camera (although that was certainly a factor); Himalaya's awe-inspiring visual beauty is largely due to the actual physical landscapes themselves, a series of majestic but treacherous locations that reportedly took the film crew weeks to hike to and then climb. Himalaya would be worth the price of admission if only for the fact that it allows us to feast our eyes on these incredible, far-flung places, while saving us both the physical exertion and the plane fare.
The two characters involved in the movie's mano-a-mano face-off are Tinle, the wiry old chief of the Doplo, and Karma, a rugged, resourceful young man who would be the next chief except that Tinle has some problems with him. The biggest of those problems, although hard-headed Tinle would be the last to admit it, is that the two men are just too much alike. Plus there's the little business of the accidental demise of Tinle's son, a death for which the old chief somehow holds Karma responsible.
It all adds up to a scenario that, in a vastly different context, might have made a nifty old John Ford movie starring John Wayne in Tinle's role and, say, Montgomery Clift as Karma. Instead of cowboys, rustlers and the traditional cattle drive, we get a big yak caravan — an annual event (and the foundation of the Dolpo economy) in which bags of salt are heaped upon the beasts of burden and transported over the mountains to be traded for grain and other crucial supplies. The battle of wills between Tinle and Karma explodes in a dispute over when to embark on the caravan: Karma wants to leave before the weather gets any worse, while Tinle declares that the departure date must be the one ordained by the gods through their human mouthpieces, the lamas.
Karma enlists all the strapping young men of the village and departs early, leaving Tinle to assemble his own rival caravan — a ragtag crew made up of old men and women, his tiny grandson and a blissed-out monk snatched from the monastery where he's been shut away from the world for eight years (and whose fish-out-of-water ineptitude provides Himalaya with some comic relief).
As you might expect, the bulk of Himalaya's later sections focuses not on Karma and his sturdy band on the move, but on the uphill journey (in all senses of the phrase) of Tinle's wobbly group — a strategy that provides the film with a nice balance of poignancy and humor, as well as a few sequences of genuine excitement, as the aged trekkers tenuously make their way across the mountains. On the down side, lest we forget that we're watching something that probably falls into the category of art film (more or less), the movie's pace is sometimes almost as deliberate as that of the old caravaneers themselves.
Still, there's a surprising amount of gold in them hills. Himalaya is filled with all manner of exotica and sweeping mystical visions (beginning with the opening scene of the old chief and his little grandson walking in a field of yellow wheat, the rows and rows of stalks bobbing and weaving together in the wind, like a thing alive). Himalaya wouldn't be worth the salt on all those yaks' backs, though, if it weren't much more than just postcard mysticism and folklore. Its story is tried and true, and made even more resonant by characters who come across not as unblemished archetypes and signifiers, but as flesh-and-blood human beings with flaws, histories and secrets. Not to mention miles and miles to go before they sleep.