'The Himalayas': Film Review

The Himalayas Still - H 2015
Courtesy of CJ Entertainment

The Himalayas Still - H 2015

A tepidly paced adventure tale.

Hwang Jung-min and Jung Woo co-star in Lee Seok-hoon’s restaging of historic events from the annals of South Korean mountaineering.

A recent spate of films on mountaineering in the Himalayas, including this year’s star-studded Everest, the 2014 doc K2 Siren of the Himalayas and Meru, currently shortlisted for a feature documentary Oscar, gets a sentimental twist from South Korean adventure drama The Himalayas. Distributor CJ entertainment has locked in dozens of international territories where the film should find a fair foothold after what’s likely to be a robust domestic opening this weekend, although response in the US may be muted by a lack of familiarity with the lead actors and considerable box office competition.

Based on actual events, Lee Seok-hoon’s (Dancing Queen) feature tracks the careers of a pair of South Korean climbers who meet under inauspicious (and rather ironic) circumstances. Daemyung University alpinists Park Moo-taek (Jung Woo) and his climbing partner Park Jung-bok (Kim In-kwon) first encounter legendary mountaineer Um Hong-gil (Hwang Jung-min) as they’re descending a peak in Nepal hauling the body of a team-member who died on their trek. Astounded by the amateurs' lack of skill and poor judgment on the peak, Um helps them descend and warns the young men to give up climbing for good if they expect to live much longer.

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A few years later, as Um assembles a team to scale Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain located on the India-Nepal border, Moo-taek and Jung-bok beg to join the climb, but only after rigorous training and testing does team captain Hong-gil relent. Like many a Himalayan expedition, their ascent is frustrated by brutally bad weather, consisting of subzero temperatures and relentless blizzards. Attempting a summit bid with only a couple of Sherpa guides, even veteran alpinist Hong-gil almost gets forced back, before Moo-taek ascends from an advance base camp and helps him push up to the peak.

Their successful climb inspires the pair to continue scaling some of the world’s tallest mountains together, culminating in an epic ascent of Mt. Everest, after which Hong-gil retires due to a leg injury. Moo-taek continues leading teams up remote and treacherous peaks, but when he gets stranded on Everest in 2004 with a couple of other climbers and perishes from exposure, Hong-gil emerges from retirement and reassembles his expedition team in an attempt to retrieve Moo-taek’s body from the mountain’s oxygen-deprived "death zone" above 26,000 feet.

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With its relentlessly upbeat emphasis on camaraderie and frequent emotionality, traits more often associated with buddy comedies and romances rather than adventure epics, The Himalayas may have established a new micro-genre: the mountaineering melodrama. Screenwriter Suo Jieun-min appears determined to wring every last laugh and tear from events that transfixed South Koreans in 2004, when Park died on the peak with his fellow climbers before Um made an heroic attempt to retrieve the bodies from near the summit of the mountain, the same staggeringly challenging section of the expedition route that was far more dramatically portrayed in Everest.

Hwang (Veteran, Ode to My Father) and Jung (C’est Si Bon) display a ready rapport, but neither is particularly convincing as a hardened mountaineer. Their interactions in frequent, humorously lighthearted scenes seem particularly out of place, padding the running time out to an enervating two hours. Lee makes a credible transition from directing comedy, but relies too frequently on sub-par special effects and poorly staged reenactments that only inconsistently pump up the action.

Production companies: JK Films, CJ Entertainment

Distributor: CJ Entertainment

Cast: Hwang Jung-min, Jung Woo, Cho Seong-ha, Kim In-kwon, Ra Mi-ran

Director: Lee Seok-hoon

Screenwriter: Suo Jieun-min

Producer: JK Youn

Executive producer: Jeong Tae-sung

Directors of photography: Kim Tae-sung, Hong Seung-hyuk

Production designer: Park Il-hyun

Costume designer:Kim Eun-suk

Editor: Lee Jin

Music: Sang Jun-hwang

Not Rated, 124 minutes