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[whitespace] 'Himalaya'
Salt of the Earth: Two Tibetan caravaners observe religious rites before setting off to collect salt in the Himalayas.

All Uphill

The ponderous 'Himalaya' offers a slow ride on yak back

By Richard von Busack

I'M TOLD that in Thailand it's the height of rudeness to display the soles of your feet, since (so I've heard) this gesture means you consider yourself "above" the unfortunate person who sees those feet of yours. It's as if you were standing on their head or something, proving your superiority. Could it be that we consider the Himalayas the most sacred place on earth because the people who live up there are above every one of us? Compared to them, we're all just miserable flatlanders.

The immensely tedious import Himalaya is a fictionalized version of a trek by mountain people who are hauling their salt on yak-back to trade for barley. In its way Himalaya is a fictionalized sequel to Saltmen of Tibet, the 1997 German documentary about the salt-treks. While Saltmen of Tibet was extremely slow, it was not without ethnographic interest. (Scenes from it are included in the Ethan Hawke Hamlet). There, we saw how the nomads led a string of reluctant yaks out to dry salt-lake beds far above the timberline. With numerous prayers and rituals--including the forswearing of sex and the adoption of a special dialect called "the salt language"--the nomads would scrape up the salt from the saline lake, pack it painstakingly, reverently, into burlap bags, and haul it out for trade. Unfortunately, today these salt traders tend to arrive just in time to see Chinese interlopers in their huge stinking trucks barging up and shoveling up the salt, without so much as a genuflection. One person's idea of movie magic is another person's sedative, and I was of two minds about this film. At times Saltmen of Tibet amazed me with the simplicity and humility of these tribesman, and at other times I wanted to bleat like a 5-year-old, "Are we at the salt mines yet?"

Himalaya, by contrast, tries to shape the experience of such salt traders into a Disneyfied version of their lives. An elderly chief named Tinle (Thilen Lhondup) has lost his son and heir because of an accident during a yak drive. Tinle suspects foul play, and so do we, seeing the insolently handsome Karma (Gurgon Kyap) who was the witness to the death and is now the main contender for the post of chief. Karma is eager to start the next convoy of salt and doesn't feel like waiting for the astrologers to find the most favorable day to begin. He leaves early. Tinle's bereavement is now compounded with his shock at the young hothead's blasphemy. When the omens are right, he heads off in a rival caravan, accompanied by his widowed daughter-in-law, his grandson, and his second son, who has been an art-studying monk for many years.

Separately, the two caravans head off, trudging, mile after mile after mile, which is bad enough, but director Eric Valli's attempts to shape Himalaya as a commercial movie badly interfere with the search for authenticity. His obvious quotes from Red River and The Wages of Fear stick out like a sick yak. The director lingers, like an ethnic crafts appraiser, over the possessions of these nomads. Worse, the scenery isn't that captivating--if you're used to the mountains of Colorado or California, these dusty hills are only of middling interest.

Himalaya is an old-school pious semidocumentary about a pristine people untouched by Western vices, and Valli frames their lives and conflict in terms of an American family movie of the mid-1970s. Here's the kind of foreign film that puts people off of foreign films.

Himalaya (Not rated; 104 min.), directed by Eric Valli, written by Nathalie Azoulai, Olivier Dazat, Louis Gardel and Jean-Claude Guillebaud, photographed by Eric Guichard and Jean-Paul Meurisse, and starring Thilen Lhondup and Gurgon Kyap, opens Friday at in San Jose at the Towne Theater.

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From the March 29-April 4, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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