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Friday, Dec. 1, 2000

'CARAVAN'/'VERTICAL LIMIT'

A natural born thriller


Set in the remote Dolpo region of Nepal, nestled high amid the Himalayas, "Caravan" (original title: "Himalaya: L'enfance d'un chef") is one of the more visually stunning films you'll see this year.Director Eric Valli -- a documentary filmmaker making his feature film debut -- takes the viewer to a world glimpsed by few, a world of big skies with circling vultures, dusty treeless slopes, perilous mountain trails and punishing blizzards.

There's always something to be said for a film that takes us where we've never been, and while that's most commonly done with computer imagery these days, "Caravan's" all-location shoot captures the majesty and sheer punishing force of the landscape with unfakeable clarity. With two decades of residence in Nepal to draw upon, and a love of mountaineering, Valli took his crew to film some 5,000 meters above sea-level, a three-week hike from the nearest air-accessible town. They traveled more than 1,400 km over a 32-week shoot, tracing the actual paths that Dolpo herders take over the Himalayas. The results are breathtaking.

For his cast, Valli went entirely with locals, mostly nonprofessional actors, many of them friends. The tale is fashioned out of actual stories Valli has heard over the years, with an archetypal simplicity that brings to mind classic John Ford: two men -- village elder Tinle (Thilen Lhondup) and headstrong young Karma (Gurgon Kyap) -- seek to prove themselves by heading rival cattle drives over the mountains, racing to beat the snows and each other.

Karma, disregarding the auspicious date set by the village shamans, sets out first with the younger men and the bulk of the yaks. Tinle -- who blames his son's death on a dangerous mountain path to Karma's lack of caution -- decides to overtake him, and thus reassert his leadership. To do so, he recruits his second son Norbou (Karma Tensing Nyima Lama), a Buddhist monk, even though he has never before been through the rigors of a caravan. Also accompanying him are his daughter-in-law Pema (Lhapka Tsamchoe, "Seven Years In Tibet") and her young son Passang (Karma Wangiel), who gets an early baptism of ice.

While the plot drives the film over the mountains, "Caravan's" strengths are largely in the details, with Valli tuning in to the colors and contours, rhythms and rituals of Dolpo life. Exotic Eastern mysticism has been in the movies a bit lately, but Valli captures it in a matter-of-fact way, stressing its connection to daily life, where a shamanic ritual serves the practical purpose of divining the weather.

This could all suggest a documentary, and indeed Valli's career -- including work for National Geographic among others -- would point to that. And to some extent, "Caravan" does serve as a document of a way of life unchanged for over a millennium. But few are the documentaries that are so carefully composed. Valli brings an artist's eye to every shot, both micro (the frost forming on the braids in Pema's hair) and macro (the vertiginous angle with which he shoots an ascent along a crumbling cliff-side path).

"Caravan" doesn't go for any flashy tricks. It doesn't need any. The struggle for survival under such harsh conditions is grand enough, and the courage needed to prevail is abundantly clear. "Caravan" may be simple, but it rings true; it powerfully captures a culture where risking one's life is a necessity, and not taken lightly.

"Vertical Limit," on the other hand, is a film made for people for whom the struggle to survive largely involves trying to fit their giant butts into an RV seat for the three-minute drive (why walk?) down to the local Qwik-E-Mart to buy a bucket of Ben & Jerry's Cholesterol Crunch. The idea of mere struggle against the elements is too preposterous for them.

An action-SFX blockbuster featuring Chris "Robin" O'Donnell, Bill Paxton and Robin Tunney, "Vertical Limit" needs to risk life not just lightly but senselessly. It can't just have a bunch of mountaineers struggling against nature and terrain. No, for an audience so insulated from any actual risk and numbed to visual depiction of danger, what's required are the most excessive and insane threats imaginable: greedy corporate bad guys, horrific personal traumas, inflated body counts, and dynamite -- lots of dynamite. Is there a rule in Hollywood that says holiday season releases must include blowing something up (which, in this case, is Mount Everest)? 'Tis it the season to be pyrotechnic?

Excuse me for ranting. It's interesting, however, to compare the natural accident (the death of Tinle's son) and utterly believable reactions to it that drive "Caravan" with the ludicrous accident and even more unbelievable reaction to it that set off "Vertical Limit." Chris O'Donnell has to cut the rope holding his own dad dangling off a mountain-side in order to save himself and his sister. (And yes, we actually do get to see dear old dad impact on the rocks far below, and -- unlike the "Roadrunner" cartoons -- he doesn't go "boing boing.") His sister (Tunney) now hates him and goes on to become the world's greatest woman mountaineer, while Chris is too scared and bitter to ever go near a mountain again -- until Sis is trapped on the peak of the formidable K2, at which point he instantly rallies himself to save the day.

Actually, I've seen this film before -- it was called "Cliffhanger" the last time around, and it sucked then too. Anything's an improvement over Sly Stallone, but all the kickass camera-work in the world can't save this film. File it next to "Twister" in the "better with the sound off" category.

"Caravan" is playing at Cinema Rise, Shibuya. Dialogue in Nepalese with Japanese subtitles, however, Dec. 16-Dec. 22, a print with English subtitles will shown. "Vertical Limit" opens in mid-December.


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