"Himalaya" director Eric Valli was a French photographer who previously contributed to National Geographic and eventually, became a resident of Nepal in 1983, as he had gained deep respect for the area's culture. The result of the director's first feature effort is an amazing one; while a fictional story, the film feels more like a documentary about people who live in a primitive fashion amidst scenery of tremendous beauty. While their way of life may seem primitive, their culture has remarkable traditions and respect for the land that provides them food and a place to live.
As previously noted, the film is a fictional story with elements of drama, but the people who portray the characters have not acted and simply do what they usually do, which is remarkably interesting by itself. The story revolves around a small village in the mountains of Nepal. Every year, they round up a caravan of yaks and transport their take of salt down the mountain to be exchanged for grain and other goods and services. As the film opens, the leader of the caravan has been killed during the journey. Tinle (Thilen Lhondup), the leader's father, wants to take on the journey, but awaits a sign from the Gods as to the appropriate date to begin the trek.
Meanwhile, Karma (Gurgon Kyap), a younger member of the community, decides that they must set off before the cold season begins. The two do not see eye-to-eye on the matter and instead of one caravan, they break off into two groups. The journey that the two groups take provides unbelievable visuals - after watching this film, I'd wished that it had played at IMAX theaters instead. The landscape almost becomes as much of a character as the human leads. The production values are very high - this doesn't look like someone holding a little camera following the action; all of the scenes are shot in grand fashion and do a spectacular job capturing the journey.
I'm also kind of amazed that I've heard this film often be called "slow". When I watched the film an hour was gone before I'd even realized it and the last 40 minutes and change moved at an equally enjoyable pace. I've realized that movies are only slow if they don't create involving characters and situations and Valli has certainly created both here. There's even a few exciting sequences, such as one where one of the caravans must go across a barely-there mountain pass that seems about ready to fall apart at any moment. Combined with the magnificent score and the visuals, I was completely engaged from begining to end. "Himalaya" shows us a place and a way of life few have ever seen and does so in a way that is visually stellar and deeply respectful. It's a triumph and an amazing work for the first time director.
VIDEO: Kino Video presents "Himalaya" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Given that Kino is a smaller company and this is the first title that I've seen from them, I didn't know what to expect, but I wasn't expecting greatness. That said, the presentation itself is a magnificent surprise that is without any noticable problems whatsoever. Sharpness and detail, even in darker scenes, is wonderful and the picture remains beautiful and "film-like" throughout.
As for flaws - well, as previously mentioned, the picture quality remained without concern. The print used was fantastically fresh and clean, with no specks, scratches or other distractions. No edge enhancement was seen, nor was any pixelation. Colors remained gorgeous throughout, appearing natural and well-saturated, with no smearing or other problems. This is a truly magnificent first effort from Kino Films and I look forward to their future efforts.
SOUND: Given that "Himalaya" is a mostly dialogue-driven production, I was not expecting much from the film's soundtrack, but - as with my expectations of the picture quality - I was proven wrong. While the film's audio is certainly not agressive, it accomplishes exactly what the soundtrack of a film like this one should. The rear speakers do an absolutely great job of portraying ambient sounds, such as wind gusts, birds or other sounds, effectively putting the viewer into the middle of the situation. The Tibetan score sounded equally terrific, with a rich, warm sound that filled the room quite well. Dialogue also came through crisply. All-in-all, a very nice effort. The 5.1 soundtrack is in Tibetan, with easily read white English Subtitles.
MENUS: Very enjoyable animated menus that use film-themed images well - there's even moving clips for the scene-selection menu.
Making Of: This is a phenomenal 26-minute documentary that chronicles the very real adventures that the 15-person film crew went on during the production, which was originally scheduled for 79 days and ended up over four times that length. At the very least, the project seems very tough and, at most, an incredible struggle. Fatigue at high altitude, dangerous conditions, altitude sickness, low supplies, fears of how far over-budget the film is going and other worries are constantly coming up throughout and the viewer is taken right into the middle of these discussions. While I had a great deal of respect for the filmmakers after watching the movie, I have even more respect for them after seeing just a sampling of what they had to go through to finish this film. This is a must-see documentary - I only wish it was far longer than 26-minutes.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Eric Valli and filmmaker/journalist Debra Kellner (who did the "making of" documentary also included on this DVD). The commentary track is an interesting discussion of the struggles of the project and obstacles that were faced, as seen on the "making of" documentary. Valli's French accent may be a bit difficult to understand, but this is certainly a very enjoyable and informative track that fills out some of the details of the events seen in the documentary and tells more about the culture of the people featured.
Also: The trailer and the electronic press kit, which offers additional short featurettes and the TV promo trailer.
Final Thoughts: "Himalaya" is a rewarding, wonderfully acted and stunningly filmed drama that I found extremely enjoyable and entertaining. Kino Video's special edition DVD gives the movie the presentation it deserves, with terrific audio/video quality and some fine supplements. It's a high compliment that Kino has provided a DVD package here, at least, that rivals the presentations some major studios make. Very highly recommended.