Peak Performance

Lhakpa Tsamchoe takes the high road to promote Himalaya

Playing the token Tibetan wife in a Brad Pitt vehicle gives an actor opportunities--including, one might assume, the chance to meditate on the cost-benefit ratio of exploitation to enlightenment. Tibetan-Indian actor Lhakpa Tsamchoe played the aforementioned part four years ago in the "exotic" travelogue Seven Years in Tibet, and thought it worthwhile as a way to increase awareness of an exiled nation among those who find great injustice in, say, Pitt's failure to win an Oscar. "Some people who didn't know anything about Tibet before," says Tsamchoe, "who wouldn't have wanted to see a film about it, have learned about it because Brad Pitt was in [Tibet], or because Kundun was [directed] by Martin Scorsese. And now we get more support from people all over the world."

At least judging by the poster's image of a snow-covered beauty looking westward from the Nepali mountains, Tsamchoe herself would seem to be the main draw in the new Himalaya--even though her role in the movie is relatively minor. Shot in Nepal's remote Dolpo region and oft-described as the Nepali Red River, the film uses a cross-country tale of generational tension--between the stubborn old salt trader Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup) and his aspiring successor Karma (Gurgon Kyap)--to represent the threatened demise of the ancient Tibetan tradition of bartering salt for grain. As the headstrong men drive their caravans of salt-toting yaks across treacherous mountain passes, Tsamchoe, playing the old man's widowed daughter-in-law (and the young man's object of desire), is mostly relegated to a handful of close-ups conveying her obvious distress. And yet here she is representing Himalaya to a half-dozen media outlets in the Twin Cities, which host one of the nation's largest populations of Tibetan-Americans.

No doubt this French film's U.S. distributor has chosen to send the 30-year-old Tsamchoe on tour because she speaks English, because she appeared with Brad Pitt in a movie, and because she looks great on a poster--and in person. Once again: whatever it takes to get the word out. "There are more Chinese in Tibet than Tibetans now," says Tsamchoe, whose sheepherder parents fled the country to escape persecution. "It's unbelievable. One Tibetan woman I heard about was put in jail just for having the Dalai Lama's photograph. Many Tibetan women have been sterilized. My dream is to see Tibet one day, but because of being in these movies, it's dangerous for me. They'd put me in jail for 18 years just for talking like this."

The risks Tsamchoe took with Himalaya included sleeping in a tent every night of the epic eight-month shoot in subzero temperatures and at many thousand feet above sea level (and without electricity). Such hardship suits not only a Method performance, of course, but also a movie about people for whom extreme physical struggle is a way of life--a story even more compellingly told in the digital-video documentary The Saltmen of Tibet. In turn, one of the challenges to the Western action-lover is to accept that Himalaya's death-defying "stunts" are, for the most part, real; and that its documentarylike portrait of the Dolpopa burning salt to predict the weather does capture how some people, however small their tribe, continue to live in the 21st Century.

One of the film's characters, a fresco painter recruited for the trek, recalls his teacher's advice: "When two paths open before you, always take the hardest one." Tsamchoe, whether despite or because of her current job studying Buddhist philosophy at Colorado State University, doesn't hesitate to agree. "Any direction you go, there's always an easy way out and a difficult way," she says. "Most of the time, the easy way [involves] running away and not facing the truth. The difficult way is the real one, and, in the long run, it's better."

 
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