Seductive  Himalayan odyssey follows a pregnant Neplaese woman as she tries to find her husband in Llasa


Source: Berlin International Film Festival


Dir. Min Bahadur Bham. Nepal/ France/Norway/Hong Kong/China/Turkey/US/Qatar. 2024. 150 mins. 

“A true monk must face reality,” a character is told in Nepalese drama Shambhala – and the power of Min Bahadur Bham’s Berlinale Competition film lies in the drama’s very firm grounding in physical detail and landscape, as well as cultural specifics. At once a spiritual odyssey and a more concrete journey of female self-determination, this is a visually magnificent slow-burner filmed high in the Himalayas, with a quietly magnetic central performance from Thinley Lhamo as its beleaguered heroine, leading a largely non-professional local cast.

A visually magnificent piece

The second feature from writer-director Min Bahadur Bham, following 2015’s The Black Hen – Nepal’s official Oscars entry and a Venice Critics Week winner – Shambhala’s visual sweep and emotional accessibility deserve to bring it attention, although a leisurely 150-minute span will be daunting to many, and a pragmatic approach to trimming might ensure the wide exposure the film deserves.

By contrast with, say, recent Bhutanese drama Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom - in which a similar community was discovered through the eyes of a town dweller - Shambhala is very much an insider depiction of traditional Himalayan life. Glimpses of digital watches and modern rainwear reveal that we are in the present day, although the mode of rural life is manifestly age-old. Its heroine is Pema (Thinley Lhamo), a young woman about to marry multiple husbands, according to her karma and to the local tradition of polyandry.

Pema’s main spouse is young farmer Tashi (Tenzin Dalha), with whom she clearly lights a fuse romantically from the start, but she also marries his younger brother Dawa (Karma Wangyal Gurung), to whom she is more of a mother figure. Also in the picture is a third brother, regarded as only husband by association – Karma (Sonam Topden), a musician and a monk at a local monastery, whose affable old abbot (Loten Namling) figures as a benign protective presence throughout.

While Tashi is away on a trading expedition to Tibetan capital Lhasa, Pema forms a bond with village teacher Ram Sir (Karma Shakya); an outsider from Kathmandu, he is a fatherly influence on the now unruly Dawa, but also given to bibulous flirtation with Pema. The film is discreet about what happens at this point, and sustains the uncertainty throughout – but Pema soon discovers that she is pregnant, and rumours start to circulate about who is the father of her child.

When Tashi fails to return from his trip, Pema sets out to find him, on a journey through forbidding mountains and snowscapes, accompanied by an initially grouchy, reluctant Karma. The film doesn’t opt for the mode of an adventure story – it’s more contemplative than that – but the sense of peril is always evident, notably when the travellers encounter a belligerent horse thief, and when they witness an archery ceremony (prefigured in the traditionally-styled paintings of the opening credits) which has a sombre resonance.

As the seemingly placid but indomitably tough, determined Pema pursues her mission, stones carved by her errant husband – tributes to family members, as well as testaments to his feelings – come to punctuate her journey, as do occasional unobtrusive but eloquent dream sequences in sepia. Shambhala – the name refers to a spiritual kingdom in Tibetan Buddhism – is a visually magnificent piece. DoP Aziz Jan Baki shoots in widescreen, predominantly in long takes with slow pans that open up the vast rocky valleys and the more intimate, often intricately composed, domestic spaces, lit by the warm glow of oil lights.

The film doesn’t need to explain too much about the nature of the society it depicts: everything becomes amply clear thanks to a crisply delineated narrative and the cast’s ability to tenderly sketch the vibrations between the characters. Even so, Shambhala nicely handles the ambivalence of Pema’s situation, and of people’s changing moods, not least Karma’s fluctuations between tetchy reserve and candid devotion to his sister-in-law, and Dawa’s very engaging shifts between fond childish candour and outright brattiness. A huge, very watchable supporting cast of goats, sheep, horses and shaggy, ambling yaks forms an ever-active background chorus for this quietly involving odyssey.

Production company: Shooney Films

International sales: Best Friend Forever,

Producer: Min Bahadur Bham

Screenplay: Min Bahadur Bham, Abinash Bikram Shah

Cinematography: Aziz Jan Baki

Editors: Liao Ching Sung, Kiran Shrestha

Production design: Ram Lal Khadka

Music: Nhyoo Bajracharya

Main cast: Thinley Lamo, Sonam Topden, Tenzin Dalha, Karma Wangyal Gurung