Mountains steal the scene in risky 'Himalaya'

Hollywood has expended a lot of energy and talent translating Tibetan culture on screen. Though the resulting "Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet" were noble efforts, it's the Nepalese production "Himalaya" that truly takes you where few Westerners have gone before.

When the chief of a small village dies in an accident during a typically grueling mountain trek, it is expected that his best friend, Karma, will replace him. The idea doesn't sit well with Tinle � the dead man's father and the previous chief � who doesn't trust Karma and would rather see his young grandson step up as leader.

By all accounts, Karma is a noble man, but he's also stubborn. While the old man waits for ancient calculations to tell when to make the annual journey to the lowlands to trade salt for grain, Karma wants to leave right away. He urges some of the younger men to follow him, leaving Tinle to lead a small band of mostly elderly villagers.

Shot in the remote Dolpo region of Nepal, "Himalaya" is populated by nonprofessional actors who convey the simple but effective story.

Still, the mountains are the real stars, filmed lovingly in true wide-screen Cinemascope by National Geographic photographer and first-time director Eric Valli, who has lived in the region for almost 20 years.

If the movie reminds you of an American western, that's no coincidence. The French-born Valli says he was inspired by John Ford movies, though the closest link is to Howard Hawks' 1948 "Red River," with the John Wayne-Montgomery Clift rivalry intact, the herds of cattle now replaced by salt-carrying yaks.

The love story between Karma and his friend's widow isn't overemphasized as it might have been in an old Hollywood western, though.

The movie is a true adventure story, its perilous trip so real that it nearly leaves you blistered and frostbitten. Just try watching without covering your eyes as those yaks trudge across a homemade bridge high along the side of a mountain.

Nominated this year for a foreign-language film Oscar, "Himalaya" is not only an exciting film but also an invaluable document that captures a dying way of life. And, aside from one obvious yak stand-in, there are no special effects, only the unspoiled majesty of the mountains, making it one of the few films this year that must be enjoyed on the big screen.

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