By all existing accounts, Eric Valli's Himalaya (1999) was not an easy film to make. Set in the remote Dolpa region of Nepal's well-known mountain range, its shooting locations were only accessible by foot and permits for accessing the area---let alone shooting there---were notoriously difficult to obtain. Nonetheless, Valli's roots in documentary filmmaking and his passion for the region (having shot a number of smaller productions there in the past) anchor the bulk of this film, which serves up breathtaking visuals and an engaging, personal story. Though most audiences could never fathom the way of life endured by the people it depicts, Himalaya remains an accessible film that's easy to enjoy.
Our story revolves around a group of villagers traveling across the mountainous region with a number of yaks in tow; their cargo is precious rock salt, which they aim to trade for grain with those who live in lower altitudes. In addition to the harsh climate and treacherous landscape, a power struggle for leadership of the group develops between two men of different generations. Their struggle to understand the other's perspective---and, of course, the onslaught of harsh conditions---give Himalaya an added layer of suspense and intrigue that easily propels the otherwise episodic, background-driven journey. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially since a large majority of the "actors" were actually real-life tribesmen, chiefs or teachers from the area. In all honesty, it's a microcosm for the film itself: realism is pushed to the forefront, which gives this fictional drama much more of a documentary feel than expected.
Director Valli, a native of France, spent more than a decade prior to shooting Himalaya as a geographical photographer for National Geographic; not surprisingly, his experience with working under difficult conditions gives Himalaya a visual edge that enhances its overall appeal. Kino Lorber presents Himalaya as separate DVD and Blu-ray releases; this review covers the former, which manages to serve up an impressive A/V presentation despite the obvious format limitations. Both releases also contain a few worthwhile vintage supplements to boot. Either way, this effective and accessible film is certainly worth looking into, although owners of Kino's own 2002 release may not want to bother with another DVD.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
More often than not, Himalaya looks quite good within the boundaries of standard definition; a separate Blu-ray release is also available, but this 480p, 2.35:1 transfer should prove adequate enough for those with more modest setups. Director Eric Valli's experience in the documentary genre is evident from start to finish, as the striking visuals of rural Tibet provide a solid anchor for the film to rest upon. Softness and very light digital noise could be spotted along the way, but this is a largely impressive effort from Kino Lorber that fans should enjoy. I'm positive that the Blu-ray trumps it in every department, but Himalaya on DVD is still a beautiful film to look at. Either way, the choice is up to you.
DISCLAIMER: These compressed and resized screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent this title's native 480p resolution.
Likewise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (presented in the original Tibetan with optional English subtitles) offers a pleasing level of sonic detail. Bruno Coulais' score has a habit of overpowering the dialogue on a few occasions, but highlights include strong channel separation and a handful of tasteful panning effects that support the film's widescreen visuals. Overall, it's a solid effort that, while trumped by the Blu-ray, stands up perfectly well on its own two feet.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, the menu interface is simply designed and easy to navigate, though a handful of logos, trailers and warning screens must be dealt with beforehand. The DVD appears to be locked for Region 1 players only, while this one-disc release is housed in a standard keepcase with a promotional insert and attractive cover artwork.
Not too much on paper, but what's here is of good quality. The highlight is undoubtedly a feature-length Audio Commentary
with director Eric Valli and journalist Debra Kellner; the latter asks most of the setup questions, while the director himself has no trouble filling this session with plenty of detail. Not many documentaries get the benefit of a commentary, but Valli's experience shows and his journey to get the film made leads to several interesting personal and technical anecdotes. Without question, those who enjoyed Himalaya
will definitely want to give this track a listen.
Also here is a solid Behind the Scenes Featurette (27 minutes) constructed by Kellner, which is home to a number of its own striking visuals. Closing things out is an Electronic Press Kit (7 minutes total) that includes a few promotional snippets, a television spot and the film's theatrical trailer. Optional English subtitles are included for translation only.
Eric Valli's Himalaya is undoubtedly a film worth watching, especially those who enjoy personal stories rooted in the documentary genre. The first-time director obviously felt comfortable from a technical perspective, as evidenced by the stunning visuals, solid casting and a steady, deliberate pace. Even from a story-driven standpoint, it's an engaging and worthwhile experience that occupies its own corner of the "typical" viewing experience. Kino Lorber's DVD offers a solid technical presentation and a few terrific supplements, though established fans will likely choose the separate Blu-ray release. Nonetheless, Himalaya is Recommended as a blind buy, though some may be just as happy with a rental.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.