The Himalayas (2015)

Text version of an introduction to a screening of Lee Seok-hoon’s The Himalayas that I gave at a screening put on by the Korean Cultural Centre UK on 4 Aug 2016.

“Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?”

This was the question that a New York Times journalist once asked of seasoned mountaineer George Mallory.

It’s a reasonable question, because any ascent to a peak over 8000 metres is an act of hubris, and of madness. Scaling the heights of Everest may represent a pinnacle of human achievement, and Everest’s summit may be the closest that you can ever get to the heavens while still having your feet on the ground – but you are also exposing yourself to conditions that are quite simply unfit for human survival. If you manage to reach the upper parts of Everest, known as the Death Zone, you must not hang about, as your body is already in the process of shutting down. Apart from the inherent dangers of the climbing itself, there are the subzero temperatures, the unpredictable climatic conditions, the very thin air, the frostbite, the altitude sickness, the snow blindness, the hypothermia, the equipment failure, the icefalls and avalanches. And when things go wrong, as they do, there is very little safety net – you have to rely on yourself and your team, because any rescue party will be slow in coming, if it comes at all, and it will be very restricted in what help it can offer.

Mallory’s answer to the question “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” was famously, “Because it’s there” – often regarded as “the three most important words in mountaineering” – but here is a cruel irony: much as Everest is there, Mallory is there too. He and fellow climber Andrew Irvine died in 1924 while ascending the North-East Ridge. Mallory’s body was not discovered until 75 years later, and remains up there, frozen and mummified, to this day. Irvine’s body has never been found.

Some way into Lee Seok-hoon’s The Himalayas, a climbing team makes an attempt on the world’s third highest peak, Kangchenjunga. In base camp, one of the team is asked by a cameraman why he climbs mountains; he gives Mallory’ reply, “Because it’s there”, before admitting, “Hey it’s plagiarism!”, and bursting into self-conscious laughter. There is a lot of laughter in The Himalayas, providing a counterpoint to all the gravity. For the lesson of Mallory’s fatal fall is that mountain climbing is governed by a law of gravity. What goes up, must come down – except for the many corpses still frozen up there, too difficult and expensive to recover. In the film, after poor weather and a string of mishaps eliminate the rest of the team, master climber Um Hong-gil (Hwang Jung-min, Veteran) and clownish novice Park Moo-taek (Jung-woo) are the only ones left to ascend all the way to Kangchenjunga’s summit. On their way up, they face death and cement what would become a very close friendship and climbing partnership – but the date of this attempt, 1999, is the same year that Mallory’s body was at last found on Everest. Misadventure and death cast their long shadow over the events of The Himalayas.

In fact, fatalism pervades Lee Seok-hoon’s film from the very start. It opens with text stating baldly that “This film is based on actual events.” What will happen to the principal characters here is indeed a matter of historical record. I won’t spoil for those who don’t know – but the dangers, if not outright doom, to come are clearly established at the beginning of the film by a diptych of sequences which bookend the beginning and end of the relationship that is the film’s principal focus.

The first of these sequences at the beginning of The Himalayas immerses viewers in the terrifying experience of being overtaken and buried by an avalanche on Everest – from a victim’s panicked point of view. The next sequence shows the very first, inauspicious meeting between Hong-gil and Moo-taek 12 years earlier, as Hong-gil goes to rescue a university team that has run into trouble descending Kangchenjunga. When young Moo-taek refuses to leave behind a companion’s corpse, his endangering behaviour incurs Hong-gil’s ire – even though Hong-gil is similarly stubborn and himself a keen taker of risks.

That first encounter on Kangchenjunga may be wrapped in tragedy, but it is also this film’s mountaineering equivalent of a meet-cute. For the bond that develops over many years between Hong-gil and Moo-taek plays out as a sort of bromantic comedy in which this odd couple bickers, squabbles and slowly earns each other’s respect and warm affection, with giant phallic mountains the only obstacle to their relationship’s consummation. The Himalayas might not seem the most hospitable location for a tryst – but note that the film’s dialogue repeatedly compares climbing a mountain to mounting a woman. It all peaks in 1999 on the bare cliff face of Kangchenjunga where Hong-gil and Moo-taek finally spend the night and see in the dawn together, side by side. “I love you, brother!”, Moo-taek declares – and from that moment on they become committed and inseparable partners in climb, seemingly spending more time in one another’s company in the clouds than with their respective families back down on the ground. Hong-gil has a wife and two children at home. Moo-taek has a girlfriend whom, tellingly, he had once abandoned because of his greater devotion to the other kind of climbing, but whom eventually (on Hong-gil’s advice) he marries. Still, what these two men share together on the slopes is more important to them than their domestic lives.

It would be going too far to suggest that The Himalayas represents South Korea’s cinematic equivalent of Brokeback Mountain – but at the same time, it is impossible to ignore the film’s focus on the homosocial, even homoerotic bonds that tie these two men together. This focus, along with a lot of character-based humour, makes The Himalayas something of a genre hybrid, far closer, at least in its first half, to a typical buddy comedy (complete with fart gags) than to, say, Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest. Kormákur’s film came out in the same year as The Himalayas and is also concerned with a real-life climb-gone-wrong in Nepal – but unlike The Himalayas, Everest  is an intensely serious docudrama that features little comedy.

When the climbing team see Moo-taek arguing with his girlfriend, one of them comments, “It’s like a TV drama” – and later when Moo-taek gives his wife a warm farewell cuddle, a colleague asks, “Excuse me, what movie are you filming?”. These lines are an explicit acknowledgement that these elements of romance or sentiment are somehow out of place in a movie about men’s real-life climbing endeavours – not least because, as we more or less know from the outset, things are going to take a grave turn.

The Himalayas represents what the Hollywood Reporter’s critic Justin Lowe calls “a new micro-genre: the mountaineering melodrama.” It is worth considering why Lee has mixed his movie modes like this. The Himalayas is a deeply nationalistic film. Um Hong-gil is a real-life Korean hero, and when he broke Asian and international records with his mountaineering, he did so under the Korean flag. So it is easy to regard his rises to different pinnacles as paralleling, even allegorising, South Korea’s ascendance as one of the leading economies on the world stage. Yet Hong-gil has also been engaged in a high-risk activity where reaching the pinnacle is accompanied by costs, setbacks and terrible loss.

In a scene near the beginning of The Himalayas, an executive for a sports company is shown weighing up how wise a PR move it is to attach a corporate logo to the clothing and kit of mountaineers who may very well end up as frozen corpses. There are, as the executive puts it, “Sometimes bonanzas, but sometimes busts.” He is expressing himself in the language of corporate economics, but the executive is essentially restating the law of gravity. What goes up, must also come down. You win some, you lose some. Hong-gil’s own successes and failures, his ups and downs, are also the vicissitudes of his corporate sponsor – and of his nation – whose emblems he is literally carrying on his back.

Now, in the course of its economic development, South Korea has suffered many, arguably self-inflicted accidents – e.g. the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge in 1994, the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in 1995, and the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014. From Sewol, significantly, not all the bodies have yet been recovered. The price of scaling the world’s dizzying heights, as both Um Hong-Gil and Korea have done, might just be to leave a trail of bodies in your wake.

This variation in fortune is reflected in the film’s shift from comic to serious modes. All the buddy comedy of The Himalayas produces a release valve for a nation that is steeped in han and desperate to snatch some sort of victory from the jaws of many defeats. Director Lee is attempting the impossible, to dress a succession of failures in a positive light, and his attempt corresponds closely to the film’s substance. For if The Himalayas is ultimately a disaster movie, documenting a series of deadly failures, it struggles – like a mountain climber – to lift itself above those disasters to a bigger picture of triumph. Whether the film actually succeeds in that will depend upon the individual viewer – but the conflict presented here between levity and gravity, and between these men’s irresponsible foolhardiness and their high-achieving heroism, is what creates the film’s singularly bittersweet quality. In spite, or perhaps even because, of these contradictions, the film certainly struck a chord with Korean audiences, outdoing even Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the domestic box office. That is quite a peak.

© Anton Bitel