Review: ‘Prince of the Himalayas’

Something’s rotten in the state of Jiabo, where the king is dead, the queen has married her brother-in-law, the prince is acting crazy and his girlfriend is even crazier.

Something’s rotten in the state of Jiabo, where the king is dead, the queen has married her brother-in-law, the prince is acting crazy and his girlfriend is even crazier. Nothing ends well in “Prince of the Himalayas,” a high-altitude “Hamlet” that takes several liberties with Shakespeare’s plot but reps a muscular, boldly dramatic trip into a fanciful ancient Tibet. Considering the breathtaking landscapes, the reckless but effective camerawork and the star turn by young Tibetan comer Purba Rgyal, a festival run seems assured. Theatrical success may seem as remote as Lhasa, but it’s a heck of a calling-card movie.

The prince, Lhamoklodan (Rgyal), has returned from his education in Persia to find his father dead and his mother married to his uncle Tsanpo, now the king (Lobzangchopel). His mother Nanm (Zomskyid) is oblivious to the nefarious facts behind the demise of her late husband, whose ghost has taken to walking the parapets. It would be easy to say auds know the rest of the story by heart, but screenwriters Hu, Trashidawa and Dorje Ysering impose enough variations to keep that from being the case.

Helmer Hu works in broad strokes, oftentimes eschewing the brooding existential aspects of many a “Hamlet” for a more in-your-face literalism. He seems to owe some of his more dramatic gestures to Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” and even Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight” — the clamorous, sometimes ungainly battle scenes and the feeling of imminent human chaos are palpable.

Still, there are certain moments of sublime vison and originality: A sequence in which the now-mad Ophelia, here known as Odsaluyang (Sonamdolgar), gives birth in a river is wildly startling. As Odsaluyang writhes in torment, a curtain of red spreads through the water; only when the camera rears back do we see a baby floating downstream, and not until the shot is about to dissolve do we see the baby move.

There’s not a lot of transition in “Prince of the Himalyas” between what would be acts in the conventional play, but this is an unconventional film. The editing is often as mad as Odsaluyang– certain cuts seem intended to inflict whiplash–but the momentum overrides any annoyance. Despite the Himalayan landscapes, Hu works in closeup much of the time, but this only serves to make the backgrounds more dramatic when he chooses to reveal them.

“Hamlet” can, of course, be an actor’s Waterloo, but young Rgyal, while lacking any character-defining soliloquy, rises to the task and is an often mesmerizing presence. The performances by his co-stars — notably Sonamdolgar, Zomskyid and Lobzangchopel — are exceptional, especially given how often and luxuriously Hu keeps the camera in their faces.

Production values are rough but adequate.

Prince of the Himalayas

China

Production

A Shanghai Film Group, Shanghai Film Studios, Hus Entertainment presentation. Produced by Sherwood Hu, Jianhua Yin. Executive producers, Zhi Cai, Suming Dong, Deng Hong, Pengle Xu. Directed by Sherwood Hu. Screenplay, Hu, Trashidawa, Dorje Ysering.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Hou Yong; editor, Mu Yu; music, Xuntian He; production designer, Suyalatu; art director, Xue Menglong; set decorators, Ma Rugong, Li Shaopei, Liu Tuanjie, Wang Yonghe, Hong Jianming, Fang Jianxin, Cao Yunen, Zhang Shuhua, Wang Xuejun, Zhou Weidong, Zhang Shusheng, Wang Jiling; sound, Liu Baosen; sound editor, Wu Ling; visual effects supervisor, Evan Ricks; associate producer, Liu Jing; assistant director, Cai Limin; casting, Cai Limin. Reviewed at AFI Los Angeles Film Festival (World Cinema), Nov. 9, 2007. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Purba Rgyal, Sonamdolgar, Trashi, Zomskyid, Lobzangchopel, Lobden. (Tibetan dialogue)
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