Himalaya is a critically acclaimed film from director Eric Valli, which went on to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards during the original year of release in 1999. The effort was spotlighted on the Variety top of the box-office charts for more than 6 consecutive months and it became an especially successful film in Europe.
The concept of the film was perhaps born when Valli was just a young boy when he read a book about the Himalaya area and became fascinated by the subject. He traveled to the area in the 80's and had conversations with the mountain villagers and became mostly familiar with some of the tribal aspects of the community both through the chief and the rest of the villagers who lived life in general solitude with immense challenges, especially when it came to surviving during winter. Deciding that this aspect of the world was worth exploring in a dramatic film, Valli decided to return to the people he had previously met and worked with them to film something that would present the world in which they inhabited.
The film is partially based on actual events -- which have been slightly altered and modified to add dramatic effect and change the basis of certain character relationships in the basis of the storyline. The general aim of the film seems to be to portray the story of the villagers with a sense of being a documentary approach. This is even found in the type of filmmaking that is presented with a lot of loosely-framed and intimate shots of the people the story focuses on.
The primary dramatic link of the film became one which told the story of some core relationships amongst the mountain villagers and especially the young and contemplative caravanner and the tribe's chief, who maintains a sense of pride throughout many circumstances that cause concern for the rest of the villagers during their harsh journey.
Himalaya was made over a period of seven months in the Dolpo region of Nepal, an area rarely seen. Director Valli is best known for his work as a photographer for National Geographic in taking photos of some of the least seen and traversed parts of the world. This skill aided his direction of Himalaya. Unfortunately, though the film took a long time to complete, the production was one which experienced delays and setbacks which brought down filming schedules and which made it a difficult experience in most respects for the filmmakers.
Valli had a big task ahead of himself in making Himalaya. The crew was filming largely without experience in an area of the world few ever see or try to live within. The budget of the film was also a constraint at times. There was even the fact that in making the feature with a documentary style, the idea was to film untrained actors who were actually a portion of the real-people who live in the Himalayas. They wouldn't use actual costumes in dressing them either, but instead rely on their actual tribal clothing. The goal was authentic storytelling. Yet, on the flip-side, many filming constraints limited the time spent perfecting acting for the film, and because inexperienced actors were the only cast members of this production the performances are uniformly disappointing.
While this film received immense acclaim from most critics, I can't claim to fully understand how that happened to Himalaya. I do not agree with the general critical assessment this film received at all. The difficulties the filmmakers faced in mounting this production were quite immense and while some of the results are interesting and worth praising, I could not enjoy watching the film when the acting was atrocious and as close to imperfect as one might imagine from an inexperienced director working in a uncommonly difficult landscape with absolutely no one around who had trained acting skills.
The film excels largely because of the frequently breathtaking photography utilized during Himalaya. Valli was experienced in photographic work with his experiences working for National Geographic and his background immensely helped the film to be more absorbing because of the unique visual experience it offers in showcasing a beautiful and uncommon worldview that is barely known to the world.
Himalaya is worth seeing for the unique mountain and tribal showcase that resulted from the efforts of the filmmakers. This film shares an important part of our world history. The film is worth seeing just to experience these lushly mounted visuals showcasing the results of their travels and journey as taken by the filmmakers to present a part of our world which is rarely seen. As the film attempts to be a narrative drama as well as a visual extravaganza, I cannot recommend the film from a dramatic standpoint, though.
None of the performances had me feeling that interested in the characters. Making Himalaya a fully-fledged documentary with interviews and discussions about the way these people live in this uncommon territory would surely have made for a more fascinatingly realized experience, but alas, the film tries to meld pseudo-documentary filmmaking with the traditional narrative filmmaking of a dramatic effort one might usually expect to find. This weakens the effort so much. It makes the film a less successful motion-picture: it's the narrative approach that has caused it to suffer as a fully successful effort.
While some might disagree and find more merit in the film on the dramatic-side, I found it straining. The spirituality and strength of the film for myself resided in the sheer power of exploring the village and Dolpo region of the Nepals and not from the storyline, which is partially based on what happened previously in the tribe, but which loses out on being as successfully rendered by the poorly handled direction of untrained actors with a script in dramatic need of repair for the film to be as wholly successful as it could have been.
The ultimately disappointing Himalaya is a curious piece of filmmaking that would have been essential viewing had it not been for the unsuccessful approach to making it. As it stands, something more interesting could have been accomplished with a shorter documentary or travelogue than what was ultimately accomplished in this largely forgettable film which is enjoyable mainly for its breathtaking photography accomplished from a master of the craft.
Himalaya has been restored for its Blu-ray presentation and the quality of the 1080p transfer is immensely satisfying. This is a remarkably high quality transfer which, frankly, surprised me with its continually high bit-rates and crisp imagery. The film looks absolutely beautiful and anyone who considers themselves a fan of the film will be quite pleased with the jump from DVD to Blu-ray. For anyone considering a purchase who is concerned about having a High Definition experience with good quality, this is certainly nothing to be concerned about as without-a-doubt this is a stunning presentation with good color depth and clarity. Kino has absolutely done a splendid job in presenting what is an impressive restoration effort for the release.
Himalaya is presented in Tibetan with English subtitles. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation is not quite the match of the stunning video presentation but that certainly doesn't make it a slouch. The clarity and vibrancy of the score composed by Bruno Coulais is amazing to hear on this release. I loved the score and it's presentation is magnificent with lossless audio. The surround effects are minimalistic, unfortunately. Dialogue is crisp and easy to understand. The surround design mainly accomplishes presenting the music score with a more immersive soundstage.
There are a few interesting supplemental materials included on this release. To my surprise, I found the supplements more interesting than the main feature film itself.
The release includes audio commentary by director Eric Valli, a 26 minute long making-of documentary, and an electronic press kit with clips and trailers associated with the film.
Himalaya is a beautiful film to look at visually as it has stunning photography of areas in this world that are rarely captured on film or in photography. Director Eric Valli is known for his photography work, and the film explores that element of his creativity further. While it's also interesting for what it attempts to do in exploring the tribal lifestyle of those who live in the Himalayas and who have had to traverse greatly challenging terrain, I did not enjoy how the narrative approach was handled from a script and performance standpoint. Alas, this makes Himalaya a film I would mostly just suggest renting to explore its unique visuals.