Rugged mountains, relentless snow blizzards, vast expanses of wilderness: Welcome to Nepal, the backdrop for the grand tale of courage and pride that is Himalaya. I have never been to this part of the world, but after watching this film, I am left with little doubt that it is a land of majestic beauty and startling cruelty.
The landscape is one of the star players in this film, directed by Eric Valli and produced by Christophe Barratier, who made Microcosmos and the mesmerizing Baraka. The opening scene offers a close view of the demanding terrain, and then a line of crossing yaks, the beasts that provide much of the villagers’ livelihood. Yaks are used to carry goods for trading with neighbouring villages in order to acquire precious salt, and it is one of these treks that forms the plot of this film. The relationship between the villagers and their environment is one of mutual dependence.
Thilen Lhondup, Gurgon Kyap, Karma Wangel, Karma Tensing
The striking location and haunting soundtrack echo the appearance of the cast—many of whom are not professional actors—and I was left with the impression that many cast members were simply doing what they have done for years and probably wondered what all the fuss with the cameras was about. Karma Wangel, who plays the boy Tsering, moves through the film with a gloriously wide-eyed astonishment and appears to have the wisdom and maturity usually found in someone much older, yet he retains a natural- seeming innocence.
The story begins with the death of Tsering’s father, Lhakpa (who is never on screen). Lhakpa has been one of the leaders of the regular trade journey the villagers must make, and he dies as a result of taking an unfamiliar path on one of the treks. The other men on the trading mission, on their return, deliver the bad news to Tsering and his family. For Lhakpa’s father (Tsering’s grandfather) Tinle (Thilen Lhondup), the death fuels a sense of loss, betrayal, and a deeply embedded feeling of pride. Tinle is one of the village chieftains, a man living in and for the past. He represents the old ways of the tribe as the younger generation are heralding a sense of newness and progression. Tinle enters into a grief-inspired rivalry with the co-leader of the fateful trek, Karma (Gurgon Kyap), the villagers’ young, strong, and respected role model. To Tinle, Karma represents the survival that has been denied his own son, and he holds him responsible for Lhakpa’s death.
This emotionally tumultuous beginning leads into a story told against a backdrop of everyday life. Scenes showing various rites of passage or the carrying out of routine chores are treated with equal visual reverence that is not dissimilar to the cultural depictions in Baraka. For example, the graceful dance of death at Lhakpa’s funeral (involving vultures and strewn intestines), and the rhythmic sound of the laundry as women slap it against the washing stone, offer insights into Nepalese culture.
This is a gentle film with gentle characters, but it also reveals the harshness of the elements—wind, rain, and snow. The people of this region are strong enough to live with that harshness, yet at the same time, there is warmth in the male villagers’ camaraderie. The elders’ council is a case study in calmly reasoned disagreement when Tinle expresses his dissatisfaction with the events unfolding before him, including Karma’s request to lead the next bartering trek across the mountains.
This can also be seen when Karma, making preparations for the next trek, comes into conflict with a charismatic group of Lamas, the spiritual leaders of the village, who traditionally calculate the appropriate timing for the next journey in accordance with the natural order of the universe. This increases the opposition between Tinle and Karma. Karma represents the new generation of the tribe, as he questions the elders’ authority and has the following of the younger men, who admire his courage and conviction in asserting his own beliefs. Karma goes to the extent of ignoring the Lamas’ advice, insisting that he lead the next trek when he has determined the timing is right, disregarding the cosmos. At the same time, Tinle presses his grandson Tsering to fill the gap left by Lhakpa’s sudden death, and he “pushes the hand of fate,” by naming the young boy as the leader of the next cosmically timed trek. This hazardous journey, which provides the rest of the film’s plot, allows Tinle with the opportunity to demonstrate his usefulness while honouring the death of his son. It also introduces Tinle’s other son, the monk Norbou (Karma Tensing), whom Tinle asks for assistance on the upcoming trek. Norbou represents still more loss for Tinle, as he lives in a monastery far from the village and his family.
This situation fosters new relationships within the family, as Norbou rediscovers his nephew and his father. The developing relationship between Norbou and Tsering is beautifully illustrated when Norbou draws a tree for Tsering and the boy does not know what it is: indeed, their surroundings are devoid of trees. Tsering’s inability to recognise something as obvious to us as a tree is a stark reminder that we all call different habitats “home.” The treks, with Tinle and Karma each leading their own group of villagers, reward both the men for their particular approaches: Karma for his modern practicality and Tinle for his traditional spirituality. However, it is the spiritual side, and Tinle’s bravery in the face of prevailing demons (on a number of levels) that appear to be leading the way through the precarious and inhospitable conditions.
The story of an old man’s stubbornness and pride in the face of youthful competition is not a new one, but Himalaya delivers it with extraordinary visual grace. Whilst the actors are wonderfully natural, portraying what may be their own lives on screen, the Himalayas themselves are the majestic “stars” of this film. Himalaya is about choices, some good and some disastrous. Yet, as Norbou is told before he decides to leave the monastery, “When two paths open up before you, always choose the hardest one.” For the characters in Himalaya, choosing the hardest path makes them strong as a people.