Filmed on location in the remote Dolpo district of northwestern Nepal, Himalaya is the story of a contemporary mountain village so cut off from the rest of the civilized world that life proceeds much as it did a thousand years ago. The villagers farm communally, but in the short growing season of their high-altitude residence, they cannot grow enough grain to feed their population. Thus, to supplement their food supply, the hardy among their number pack salt bags on the backs of their yaks and caravan for several weeks to a distant valley where they trade the salt for additional grain.
The drama in Himalaya proceeds from a power struggle over who shall lead this year's caravan. The film begins with the death of a young man named Lhakpa, son of the aging village chief Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup) and heir apparent to the mantle of village leadership. For reasons that the film never adequately explores, Tinle blames Lhakpa's death on Lhakpa's friend Karma (Gurgon Kyap), an attitude shared by no one else in the community. Serious problems arise shortly, when the time arrives to prepare the caravan to exchange salt for grain. In recent years, Lhakpa led the caravan. Now, everyone presumes that Karma will command the long overland journey, but Tinle objects and insists he will lead the caravan himself. A crisis of loyalties ensues. Most of the young men in the village side with Karma, while most of the elders stand with Tinle, even though the elders know that Tinle is wrong.
Following the ancient traditions, Tinle consults with village astrologers to determine the best date for departure. Literally stealing a march, Karma convinces the young men to embark with him four days prior to the date suggested by the stars. Those remaining at home hope that Karma's departure will discourage Tinle from making the trek himself, but the old chief browbeats the men of his own generation into joining him and declares his intention to beat Karma to the high mountain gap that leads down to the valley. Danger and hardship, courage and daring follow.
Given its exotic location and bracing values, I'd love to tell you that I deem Himalaya must-see cinema. But I can't. The picture is not without its merits, but does possess considerable flaws. Some directors, like the great Iranian Majid Majidi, work wonders with non-professional actors. Valli is not so gifted. Thinlen Lhondup doesn't speak his lines; he screams them. Perhaps as a disastrous act of courtesy, Valli never got his star's critical performance under control. Surprisingly, given the film's spectacular setting, the photography never rises above the pedestrian.
There are also script problems. We know that Lhakpa dies while on a caravan to procure salt. But the picture leaves us completely unenlightened about this important element in village economy. Have the caravan men traded for the salt they bring back, and if so what have they offered in barter? Or have they mined the salt themselves, and if so by what process and through what commitment of time? How long have they been gone? How are labor duties in the village divided in their absence? Why does Karma approach Lhakpa's widow Pema (Lhakpa Tsamchoe) and ask her to accompany him on his rebel caravan? Sure, we can see the incipient sexual electricity between the two attractive young people, but what role can a woman with an 8-year-old son play in so arduous a journey?
Why do the village elders stand with Tinle when they clearly think he's dangerously wrong? What's going on with the changing of Pema's son's name from Tsering (Karma Wangiel) to Passang? After Tinle's lama son Norbou (Karma Tenzing) rejects joining his father's caravan, why does the monk change his mind, and after he does, what does it matter that he has? Most important, why is Tinle obsessed with catching Karma, and why are the elders willing to approve the risks Tinle takes to achieve that objective?
In short, Himalaya raises too many unanswered questions to satisfy the curious viewer. I will readily grant that Lhakpa Tsamchoe has eyes among the most beautiful ever photographed. The culture this film examines is certainly fascinating. And the picture's message about forgiveness and reconciliation is absolutely timeless and morally inexhaustible. The narrative's buoyant conclusion, however, is far more willed than earned, its salute to the triumph of traditional wisdom a gesture not assembled from its own body of details.