Himalaya (1999)

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Released 13-Nov-2001

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Theatrical Trailer-1.33:1, not 16x9, Dolby Digital 2.0 (1:46)
Biographies-Cast & Crew
Synopsis
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1999
Running Time 103:53
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Eric Valli
Studio
Distributor

Magna Home Entertainment
Starring Thilen Lhondup
Gurgon Kyap
Lhakpa Tsamchoe
Kharma Wangiel
Kharma Tensing Nyima Lama
Labrang Tundup
Jampa Kalsang Tamang
Tsering Dorjee
Case Click
RPI $29.95 Music Bruno Coulais


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None Tibetan Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    This is a DVD that had been hanging around for a little while in the review pile with no one sticking their hand up to volunteer for it. So, basically I ended up sticking my hand up for it as an over-the-holidays effort, sort of penance for some of the better films that I have had the chance to review recently. Knowing nothing about the film, you can pretty much guess that this was not ranking highly on my list of DVDs to be reviewed, which of course means that there was a degree of trepidation when, somewhat against the expected flow, I stuck this into the player as the first DVD off a decent-sized pile to be cleared over the Christmas break.

    I might not proclaim it a masterpiece, but Himalaya is certainly an evocative film and makes for engrossing viewing, and ranks as one of those unexpected diamonds we occasionally come across in our reviewing duties. For those that don't know, the film copped an Oscar nomination in 2000 for Best Foreign Language Film and thoroughly deserving of that accolade it is. Some might wonder about the entertainment value to be found in a film that basically chronicles a part of Tibetan culture that is slowly disappearing as a result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and the struggle of the younger Tibetans to follow the ancestral paths as a result. Well, I can assure you that the story is certainly engrossing enough to keep your attention span extended and then you throw in some of the most magnificent scenery on Earth into the mix and you have a cinematic dream of a film.

    Filmed on location in the Dolpo Valley, in Nepal (a country where many refugees from Tibet now reside), the backdrop to the whole film is the stark, ethereal, exquisite beauty of the Himalayas. Naturally enough, these high locations provide a fairly harsh environment in which to live and provide only small opportunities to grow grain. The Tibetan villagers survive by harvesting salt from the mountain plateaus and caravaning it down to the fertile plains below, where they exchange the salt for grain and other foodstuffs. Thus we have the basic premise of the story dealt with here, with only the characters to be fleshed out. The village chief is Tinle (Thilen Lhondup), an aging but proud man whose son was to succeed him as village chief. Unfortunately, his son has been killed in the mountains on a caravan that has returned to the village with the sad news. His son's best friend, and best mountain man, Karma (Gurgon Kyap) has returned with the bad news, but also with the expectation of now becoming the successor to Tinle's son. However, Tinle is convinced that Karma is responsible for his son's death and decides that he, an aging man without the support of most of the village, will lead the caravan down the mountains himself. Karma sees no purpose in an old man trying to do this, and rather than await for the clerics' calculated day for departure which he believes will lead to disaster, convinces the younger men of the village to join his caravan. However, grieving widow Pema (Lhakpa Tsamchoe) and her son Pasang (Karma Wangiel) decide to hang around and join Tinle's caravan, not wishing to upset her father-in-law. Tinle is so lacking support that he has travelled to the monastery to convince his second son, the lama Nordou (Karma Tensing Nyima Lama), to lead the caravan with him - despite having been away from the village since he was a child.

    What follows is basically the tale of two caravans, as the obstinate Tinle berates his small collection of aging men into a chase to catch and overtake the obstinate Karma, who departed four days before them. Along the way there are dangers overcome, and magnificent scenery to be enjoyed, as slowly but surely Karma comes to appreciate that Tinle does have an understanding of the world that he lacks, whilst Tinle comes to understand that the rebellious nature of Karma is the essence of what makes him the perfect new chief of the village, which really means that at an elevation of five thousand metres, we have the ultimate in rites-of-passage films.

    Since the Himalayas simply dominate the film, it has to be stated early on that there is some wonderful cinematography here that uses the magnificence of the mountains as a fitting backdrop to the struggle of the rites of passage. Basically, you could just watch the film to enjoy the scenery, for this is about as close as a lot of us are ever going to see them in real life. Whilst the mountains could have overshadowed everything about the film, such is the exquisite craft displayed by director Eric Valli that they never do so. The story is an ageless one of great power and meaning, and the cast does a terrific job with it - especially considering that none of them are actually actors in the true sense of the word - some might now aspire to such a profession. The authenticity of the story and the characters just oozes from every frame of the film and there is never any doubt that we are actually in the high peaks of the Himalayas amongst a group of people struggling with both the environment and the changing of the guard.

   Whilst I would be loathe to proclaim the film a masterpiece, there is no doubt that it has an epic feel which is quite rare these days amongst films from Hollywood. Accordingly, as an antidote to all those over-hyped pieces of dross that Hollywood churns out under the generic title of blockbuster, this is perfect. Superbly crafted in just about every way, and chronicling a way of life that we have little or no knowledge of, and one that is disappearing in any case, this is a film that commands attention.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    It is fair to say that Magna Pacific have been a little inconsistent in the transfers they have given us on DVD. Well, this effort is arguably the finest transfer they have yet given us and in general terms is stunning. Indeed, were it not for one aspect of the transfer alone, I would be clambering for this video transfer to be recognised as an honourable mention in the Hall of Fame.

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and it is 16x9 enhanced.

    The transfer basically is gorgeous. Stunningly sharp, the detail on offer is terrific and the scenery as a result comes up wonderfully well. In the opening sequence of the golden grain in the field you can almost see every grain head. That shimmer that you think you see in the long shot of the village? That is not shimmer, it is actually the flags of the village flying in the breeze. That is how good this transfer is. Clarity is wonderful with only a couple of sections of grain - 29:03 and 76:58 - to impinge upon the depth of the transfer. Indeed, about the only really noticeable let down is a couple of slightly out of focus shots that are presumably inherent in the source material - quite understandable as I bet it is not real easy to film at five thousand metres. Shadow detail appears to have been kept deliberately in check to emphasise the nature of the environment. Really tremendous stuff overall.

    The transfer also boasts a superb vibrancy that really brings the colours of the villagers and the mountains out in what is presumably a very natural looking way (not having been to Nepal, I cannot personally attest to this). There is a natural undersaturation to the colours that is beguiling and there is not a hint of oversaturation here at all. Colour bleed also does not seem to be an issue at all.

    The only hint of an MPEG artefact in the transfer is the slightly jerky nature of the pan shot at 4:03. Apart from that, this is free of any other MPEG artefacts. There are also very few indications of any film-to-video artefacts in the transfer, and those that are present are utterly inconsequential - the most obvious of which is some slight aliasing in the shirt sleeve at 26:44. There might have been one or two little marks on the transfer but that was the extent of the film artefacts. Indeed, the most visually annoying artefact comes during the closing credits at 102:41 when a bright green line briefly flashes across the screen.

    So up to this point we have one extraordinarily good transfer. It is therefore a pity that it is spoilt by the presence of burnt-in subtitles. Perhaps it is just me, but frankly in the DVD age there is simply no excuse for burnt-in subtitles, no matter what the film. In this case, the English subtitles are presented in a very, very large font that covers a sizeable portion of the bottom of the film. They are extremely intrusive indeed, and all the more so when you have all that unused black bar area under the film to display the subtitles in and when you cannot turn them off. Regrettably, there is no point of reference to make any comment upon the accuracy of the subtitles themselves, but one is thankful that this is not a dialogue-heavy film. Interestingly, the subtitles on the trailer are different, both in style and in the translation of the dialogue. Overall, the trailer style subtitles would have been more preferable.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    Since we are talking about a sort-of French film shot in Nepal and featuring a sadly disappearing part of Tibetan culture, what language do you want the film in? Well, we get the rather unusual choice of Tibetan, in a nice Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack.

    The dialogue comes up well in the transfer and is quite easy to understand - even more so if you understand Tibetan. There did not appear to be any problems with audio sync in the transfer.

    The original score comes from Bruno Coulais and it is quite an ethereal, evocative soundtrack that thankfully has been done in a restrained manner, meaning we don't have one hundred minutes of intrusion in the film. The film does not need too much in the way of musical support - the nature of the setting simply does not need it - and all involved recognised this. Still, it is a great pity that we get no isolated music score and this is one soundtrack I would not mind getting on CD (or even better on DVD-Audio).

    The lack of a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack will be seen by some as a fatal omission, but in truth the film does not require that sort of soundtrack. I will admit, however, that some surround encoding would have been nice here, especially during the trek over the mountains and especially in the storm. Even more so, I miss the higher bit rate of the soundtrack on the Dutch version of the DVD - the extra space that 320 Kb/s would have afforded here would have been rather appreciated. Not that there is any congestion in the soundtrack, merely an indication that ethereal type soundtracks can never get too much space in which to breathe. There is nothing at all wrong with what we get here.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Unfortunately for a film that cries out for a further, in-depth look, the DVD is sadly devoid of most of the extras available in Region 2 (see below). It would seem that Magna Pacific have decided to restrict the film to a single layer, single sided DVD, which naturally limits the available space for extras, as opposed to spreading it over a dual layer DVD. As much as I appreciate what Magna Pacific have given us, I am disappointed over what we do miss out on.

Menu

    16x9 enhanced and rather stunning looking, even though it is very simple and features no other enhancement of any kind.

Theatrical Trailer (1:46)

    After the stunning beauty of the feature itself, watching this is almost painful. Aside from being presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which is not 16x9 enhanced and features Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, the disappointment here is that the colour lacks any vibrancy and is somewhat muted. A little grainy at times, the overall effect is enough to put you off watching the feature if you see it first. Interestingly, the subtitles on the trailer are significantly better in style than those used in the feature and seem to be somewhat more extensive for some reason.

Biographies - Cast and Crew

    Sort of a cross between straight biographies and a conversational style explanation of the characters they play, these are amongst the more original biographies I have seen on DVD. Very nice.

Synopsis

    A rather well done effort this and far, far better than what I wrote above. Well worth checking out.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 release misses out on:

    That would make it an overwhelming choice in favour of Region 4. However, if you have a multi-region player (and if you are checking out this section then that is probably a given), you might like to check out the options available in Region 2. So far I have found two different releases, one in The Netherlands and one in France. I apologise as my Dutch is basically non-existent and my French is very rusty, but from what I can understand they have the following options.

    The Dutch Region 2 release features:

    The French Region 2 release features:

    Judging by the comments found in reviews for these DVDs, the transfers are very good. That being the case, if perchance the language and subtitle options are acceptable to you (neither appear to have English subtitles), either of these versions would be a better choice since they feature far more extras. It should be pointed out that the Region 4 release is devoid of extras in order to keep the film on a single layer, single sided DVD, whereas the Region 2 releases are both on dual layer, single sided DVDs.

Summary

    In broad terms Himalaya is a wonderful film and is blessed with a visually brilliant looking transfer, arguably one of the best that Magna Pacific have ever done. However, it is the little things here that disappoint. I am not so worried by the lack of extras, bearing in mind that my couldn't-care-less attitude over extras is not representative of the bulk of the DVD buying public, but it is the lack of optional subtitles that rankles the highest. I don't care whether you are talking about a blockbuster film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or an art house film such as this, in this day and age on DVD the presence of non-selectable subtitles on foreign language films is simply unacceptable. Notwithstanding this factor, such is the quality of what is present on the DVD that the film itself does triumph and this is another of those rare films that simply holds you in awe. If you want to explore the boundaries of the cinema experience, then you should certainly check this DVD out. The overall score given is docked half a star for the burnt-in subtitles.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Saturday, December 15, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-515, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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