Throw together a curmudgeonly old man, a cute little boy, some nice scenery, an element of danger, a few hearty yuks, and minimal subtitles and you’re guaranteed a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination. But there are more yaks than yuks in French director Eric Valli’s Himalaya, which might be one reason it lost out to Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother a couple years back.
In a remote Tibetan village, a salt caravan returns with the body of Lapka, whose father, Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup), is the village chief. Lapka’s friend Karma (Gurgon Kyap) insists the death was an accident, but since he’s vying to succeed Tinle, the aging chief has his suspicions. Is he good or bad Karma? Bringing matters to a crisis are the plans for the next salt caravan. Tinle insists on going by the book, following the astrologers’ advice and the centuries-old superstitions regarding this treacherous but essential yak expedition over the mountains. Karma wants to cut through the red tape; he gets the young men to back him, and in a kind of Tibetan version of Red River, he and Tinle lead rival caravans. Himalaya shows real subtlety, especially in the relationships involving Karma and Lapka’s widow (Lhakpa Tsamchoe) and her boy (Karma Wangiel). And the glorious landscapes, backed by Bruno Coulais’s Tibetan-inspired soundtrack, evoke the sublimity of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. But enough of me yakkin’ — go see for yourself.