Combustible Celluloid
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With: Thinlen Lhondup, Karma Wangiel, Lhapka Tsamchoe, Karma Tenzing, Gurgon Kyap
Written by: Nathalie Azoulai, Olivier Dazat, Louis Gardel, Jean-Claude Guillebaud, Eric Valli
Directed by: Eric Valli
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Tibetan, German with English subtitles
Running Time: 108
Date: 03/19/2013

Himalaya (2001)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Himalaya may seem like an exotic look at a strange culture and its yearly ritual of carrying salt over a mountain, but it's really just a mediocre Hollywood adventure wrapped up in a striking package.

It's fascinating to learn, in Himalaya, (a.k.a. Caravan) about the Tibetans and the treacherous journey they make over a mountain to trade their wares for food. But Valli, from his storyteller's perch, decides that it's not interesting enough and cooks up a dim-witted melodramatic story to go with it.

The Dolpo village's regular caravan leader dies during a dangerous trip, leaving his father Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup), the tribe's elder leader, and his best friend Karma (Gurgon Kyap) as the only prospects to lead the next journey. Since Tinle blames Karma for his son's death, he searches in vain for someone else to lead, including his other son (Karma Tenzing), a monk painter in a nearby temple.

In the end, the two stubborn men set off separately, racing each other over the mountain. The film doesn't even bother to develop any characters beyond the two men. Tinle's young grandson (Karma Wangiel) goes along for the trip, but he doesn't do anything except look cute and complain about being tired and hungry.

If this had been a grand Hollywood adventure film by Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo and Hatari!), he would not have disguised it as an "important" cultural experience, and he would have spent some time with the characters. As it is, Himalaya takes almost an hour to get its story rolling, and virtually nothing happens during that time. When Valli decides to whip up some dramatic tension, he does it in the most trite and basic way imaginable, such as Tinle and Karma suddenly meeting by stooping to pick up an arrow at the same time.

I can understand why the Castro Theater decided to run Himalaya for two weeks, though. The film is lovely to look at, and it will proudly show off their big screen and sound system. (Some of the Tibetan chants are particularly haunting.) One sequence with the team trying to get around a precarious and crumbling mountain path briefly brings the film to suspenseful life. But it dies again quickly afterwards.

Valli should have decided whether his movie was an adventure or a docudrama. The current result is too silly to be taken seriously and too boring to be fun.

Kino Lorber resurrected this arthouse favorite in 2013 and gave it a new high-definition release on Blu-ray and DVD. Director Eric Valli provides a serious commentary track, and there's a short making-of featurette. Of course, the key to this movie is its visuals, and home viewers will be pleased.

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