Movie review: 'Himalayas' is its own mountain climb

Movie review: 'Himalayas' is its own mountain climb
Still from "The Himalayas".
PHOTO: CJ Entertainment

Lee Seok-hoon's "The Himalayas" is one of the most anticipated films of the year, bringing together "Ode to My Father" director JK Youn as producer and star actor Hwang Jung-min ("Ode to My Father," "Veteran") to recreate the true story of mountaineer Uhm Hong-gil.

So it may come as a surprise that, compared to other mountain-climbing films like Hollywood's "Everest," which came out earlier this year, "The Himalayas" is decidedly less dramatic.

That may be because of director Lee's hope that the film would be as realistic as possible in its depictions of life as a climber.

"Before we started work on the film, I had the chance to meet a lot of climbers," he said. "They all told me the same thing: that there weren't any well-made climbing movies out there. ... Of course, we wanted our film to be well received by the public, but before that we wanted it to be appreciated by actual climbers."

The first half of the film plays almost like a documentary, following Uhm (Hwang Jung-min) as he trains and builds a relationship with his team -- most notably Park Moo-taek (Jung Woo), who becomes a protege and a brother to Uhm.

The process is relatively uneventful and takes place mostly on the ground, making the audience almost forget that this is a mountain-climbing film. How Uhm and Park reached four Himalayan peaks (Kangchenjunga, K2, Shishapangma and Everest) together between 2000 and 2002 is skipped altogether, substituted by brief frames of the two men smiling and taking pictures at the summits. The focus is the brotherly love that builds between the two characters, and the love they share for climbing.

It is only after this long hourlong narrative that the main story begins. Uhm has declared retirement from climbing when he hears that his protege Park had died on his way down from Everest during a separate climb and that his body still lay there. Uhm quickly assembles an expedition team to recover Park's body.

This is when the film seems to really begin, with every frozen step shown in shaky detail by cameras that Lee directed to follow the actors rather than shoot from far away. The apparent pain of the climb, mingled with Hwang's convincing portrayal of a heartbroken mentor, creates an emotional swell toward the end of the film.

"It was a genre we've never done before. ... We had no reference," Hwang Jung-min said. "With genres like action or romance we can monitor the scenes and decide what looks good or bad. But with 'The Himalayas' we didn't have that. It was hard."

The lack of reference seems to have done some good for the superb cast, who pulled off a film that cannot be typecast into any genre. "The Himalayas" is layered with elements of documentary, comedy, adventure and drama. It'll throw off moviegoers who come to the theatre wanting an exciting blockbuster, but it's an interesting film that pays respect to Korea's best-known mountaineer while being entertaining and heartwarming.

"The Himalayas" opens in local theatres on Dec. 16.

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