The Himalayas

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Reviewed by Aaron Rourke

Hot on the heels of Everest comes The Himalayas, another high altitude drama based on a true story, and while a number of flaws stop it from hitting a perfect bullseye, the film proves to be just as entertaining as its cinematic brother.

Opening in 1992 (after an attention-grabbing climbing sequence), we are introduced to Um Hong-gil (Hwang Jung-min), a seasoned South Korean mountaineer who is highly respected among the climbing community. Stationed at a popular site with his close-knit colleagues as a rescue team, they soon have to offer assistance to a group of amateurs after their leader is killed by an avalanche. It is here where Hong-gil first meets Park Moo-taek (Jung Woo) and Park Jung-bok (Kim In-kwon). It is a confrontation he would rather forget, and he frowns upon their attitude, particularly Moo-taek’s.

When Hong-gil and his team are about to prepare a climb on Kanchenjunga in 1999, he crosses paths with Moo-taek and Jung-bok again, who desperately want to become part of the group. Hong-Gil has no intention of letting the two participate, but once they meet his wife Sun-ho (Yoo-sun), the stubborn leader relents, but not before putting them through a series of punishing training exercises. Over time Moo-taek will become Hong-gil’s most trusted colleague and friend. This friendship will be broken when tragedy strikes in 2004.

The Himalayas takes its time setting up character and story, and those expecting Cliffhanger-style thrills and spills will be seriously disappointed. Half the film focuses on the group, their training regime, and the two newcomers connecting with Hong-gil and his fellow team members. Though everyone isn’t fully fleshed out, their fraternal behaviour is believably presented, allowing you to feel part of these people’s lives, lives that are at times tested by extreme physical endurance and danger. This slow-build approach, quite common in Asian cinema, is refreshing, not pushing audiences past the essentials in a rush to get to the action. In fact, both this and Everest are similar in its deliberate pacing and character foundation, facets that made the Hollywood effort a better-than-expected viewing experience (its more low-key dramatics probably also accounted for its lukewarm success).

Where the film begins to falter is in the second half, when characters start breaking down on a regular basis and deliver speeches that seem to take up crucial screen time. Knowing this is based on a true story, and intertwined with some savvy film-making, does make this an unexpectedly moving experience (there were patrons crying during the session I attended), but these occasionally protracted scenes also frustrate, since there are some supporting characters that should have been developed more. The group’s sole female member, Jo Myung-ae, is a fascinating anomaly in this male-dominated world, and actress Ra Mi-ran plays her with such an open energy (especially during two wonderful scenes), you wish she was given more attention script wise. The same can be said for Moo-taek’s girlfriend-turned-wife Jung Yu-mi. Choi Soo-young is so good during the character’s introductory sequence, it is somewhat disappointing when she’s relegated to the sidelines as the movie progresses. There is also a warm performance from Yoo-sun as Hong-gil’s understanding wife, and it would have been nice to see a little more of her.

Jung Woo is extremely likeable as Moo-taek, and credibly makes the transition from hot-headed amateur to mature, well-trained protege. Woo handles both the humour and drama with accomplished versatility, and his interaction with other cast members is a treat to watch. The real star though is Hwang Jung-min, who once more commands the screen as the stern but loyal Hong-gil. Recently seen in the South Korean blockbusters Veteran (which is fantastic) and Ode To My Father, as well as offering a scene-stealing turn in the impressive crime thriller New World, Jung-min inhabits Hong-gil completely, delivering a character that feels like a genuine flesh-and-blood creation. Even during moments of heightened melodrama, Jung-min emotes with such conviction that you initially forgive the film’s indulgent fervour. One wonders when Hollywood is going to knock on this outstanding actor’s door.

Co-writer/director Lee Suk-hoon, who helmed the big-budget box-office hit The Pirates (an anachronistic action/comedy/adventure that proved to be a lot of fun), handles the true-life material with sensitivity and skill, confidently changing the film’s tone from knockabout comedy to serious human drama. If he had just slightly trimmed some of the histrionics (it must be said that some scenes do work, including a pivotal one near the end), in favour of more screen time for important supporting characters, particularly the three women previously mentioned, The Himalayas would have satisfied even more than it does.

The Himalayas will go down in history as the film that beat Star Wars : The Force Awakens at the box-office (in South Korea, and did it with ease), a feat in itself that is quite remarkable, considering the Star Wars hype that gripped the world. There was even a collaboration song from mega-huge K-Pop boy band EXO called Lightsaber. The film itself may not be as groundbreaking, but it does involve and entertain, something so many high profile commercial features fail to do.

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