Stunningly shot but lacking in dramatic oxygen, “Himalaya” is a wonderful series of exotic postcards pasted together to look like a script. As a glimpse into a fast-dying way of life, a slice of widescreen ethnography or a tribute to the technical smarts of a small French crew shooting at 15,000 feet, it’s aces, but as a dramatic feature designed to lure more than curio-seekers into theaters it hardly gets to base camp. Gallic auds more accustomed to exoticism for its own sake, rather than strong narrative drive, may be more generous to this debut feature by travel writer and short-filmmaker Eric Valli.
Having tramped the region for years, Valli clearly knows whereof he films, and the picture oozes a simple respect for the Tibetan people on whom it centers , without any holier-than-thou mystification or extraneous Chinese-bashing. The movie, in fact, exists in a kind of historical no man’s land, with no references to datable events and as true now as it was centuries earlier.
Set and shot in the Dolpo region, which by modern-day borders lies just within northwestern Nepal, story starts with Karma (Gurgon Kyap) returning from a trek with the news that the son of village headman Tinle (Thilen Lhondup) died in an accident during the trek. Tinle’s daughter-in-law, Pema (striking Lhapka Tsamchoe, from “Seven Years in Tibet”), comforts her young son, Pasang (Karma Wangiel), with the thought that his dad will be reborn.
But Tinle cannot so easily forgive Karma, and refuses to sanction him as leader of the forthcoming yak caravan across the mountains, carrying salt to be bartered for meat. Karma presses on nonetheless, and the aging Tinle, after unsuccessfully trying to persuade his second son, Norbu (Karma Tensing Nyama Lama), a lama, to lead the remainder of the villagers, follows a few days later. The two men — a proud youth and stubborn older man — eventually meet high up in the snowy wastes.
It’s an OK storyline — kind of “Red River” in the Himalayas — but one that needed much more fleshing out than the six scripters have managed here if the humans are to compete with the widescreen photography. (Film’s French handle also suggests the plot centers on the young Pasang, which simply isn’t true.) Dialogue and acting tend toward the taciturn and stony-faced, with character conflict rarely going deeper than long stares. A wispy side plot of Karma and Pema’s mutual attraction stretches belief in its latter stages.
Lensing, however, is tops, with some breathtaking scenes in the snow and a well-staged precipice sequence staged high above azure Lake Phoksundo. Visual compositions are immaculate, with no feeling of footage summarily grabbed on difficult locations. Bruno Coulais’ choral-symphonic score is a good fit and goes easy on gratuitous ethnicisms.