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Himalayas, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Doesn't quite scale the heights it needs to."
3 stars

The biggest problem with "Himalaya" (titled "The Himalayas" for its North American release) is that it comes right on the heels of "Everest". The latter is not a particularly great movie but had the resources of a major Hollywood studio behind it to create something that is at least visually astounding. This South Korean production gets maybe seventy-five percent of the way there on what is likely a fraction of the budget, but doesn't quite manage the emotional wallop that could allow it to surpass the American mega-production.

Its veteran mountaineer is Um Hong-gil (Hwang Jung-min), a well-respected expert already in 1992 when he mounts a rescue of two young countrymen - Park Moo-taek (Jung Woo) and Park Jung-bok (Kim In-kwon) - when their expedition's captain is killed in an avalanche. The first thing he tells Moo-taek when he wakes up from a coma two days later is to never climb again, and he recognizes the two when they try to join his expedition to Kangchenjunga in 1999. His wife (Yoo-sun) takes a shine to them, and soon Moo-taek is one of Hong-gil's most trusted partners. An injury forces him to retire from climbing in 2004 - at least until the expedition Moo-taek leads to Everest takes a bad turn.

Director Lee Suk-hoon is no stranger to grand adventure - his previous movie, The Pirates, was a fun swashbuckler that also got an American theatrical release and didn't look out of place next to other late-summer fare - and he and his team do fairly well when going for spectacle. The opening first-person sequence is exciting and the film is peppered with scenes depicting the awesome but frightening majesty of the Himalayas, impressively constructed from location shooting in Nepal, safer studio work, and pretty decent visual effects. There's an impressive urgency to how quickly folks work when a minor avalanche buries one alpinist, and a good balance of danger and grandeur.

This film can't be entirely spectacle, of course, and its half-dozen writers (including Lee) do have a specific story that they're looking to tell. It is, unfortunately, kind of clumsy and drawn-out toward the beginning; the film spends a lot of time depicting Moo-taek and Jung-bok as goofballs groaning about the difficult training Hong-gil is putting them through and playing those scenes for laughs, undercutting how insanely difficult what Hong-gil does is. It makes for an abrupt transition to Moo-taek being Hong-gil's most trusted team member, and the impression of Moo-taek as an amateur in over his head may still be in the viewer's head when he or she needs to see him as an expert in his own right and a worthy protege.

That's no knock on the job done by the actors; they give plenty to the film they're asked to make. Hwang Jung-min - last seen in the action hit Veteran - nails what Hong-gil needs to be for this movie, capturing how climbing is this man's obsession although he is generally wise enough to keep it from endangering others. That's reflected in his relationship with Moo-taek - disdainful at first, brothers when the latter proves a worthy partner - and perfectly captured toward the end, when his "Human Expedition" is a tangle of pride and perhaps misguided honor. Similarly, Jung Woo ably plays the clown early on but backs off it well later; indeed, Moo-taek may be a bit healthier than his mentor and thus more potentially tragic, a bit more humble. Yoo-sun and Jung Yu-mi make entertaining complements as the women in their lives, although the ensemble of other climbers in their parties gets somewhat shortchanged: One of the best moments has Ra Mi-ran's Myung-ae wondering if being the only woman in the group was why Hong-gil always chose Moo-taek over her

That's the sort of interesting subplot one would think this long movie would have a little time for.- a good chunk of its two hours is spent back in Korea, and it seems like there would be chances to cover these things both at sea level. It could even come up at altitude - one thing that makes an interesting contrast to Everest is that while the American movie sometimes suffered because it was often difficult to tell which character was on-screen underneath all the authentic cold-weather gear, Lee takes some license by having the faces mostly uncovered, which breaks the illusion of actually being 8000m up to a certain extent.

It's not hard to see why this has been a huge hit in Korea; it's homegrown spectacle based on a true story with a lot of emotional resonance. It isn't quite strong enough to make it one of the great mountaineering movies, although it's not far off and certainly puts a lot on the screen.

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originally posted: 01/10/16 14:26:45
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8/04/16 h.a greate emotional movie 5 stars
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  01-Jan-2016 (M)

Directed by
  Seok-hoon Lee

Written by
  Ji-eun Min
  Oh Soo
  Seok-hoon Lee

  Jeong-min Hwang
  Sung-Ha Jo
  Woo Jung
  In-kwon Kim
  Mi-ran Ra

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