Thursday, June 06, 2013

1 Mile Above: Tibet on Two Wheels

Tibet is not merely a destination, it is an experience.  Still, cycling across the country is taking matters to the extreme.  Taiwanese Zhang Shuhao is not the man to do it.  Yet, he has very personal reasons for biking from Lijiang to Lhasa in Du Jiayi’s 1 Mile Above (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Zhang’s elder brother was the cyclist.  He is an amateur.  However, he resolves to make the trek his recently deceased brother had been training for.  Originally conceived as a tribute, it becomes a purification ritual and a struggle to survive.  Although some of the local guides try to take advantage of the fish out of water, he has the good fortune to fall in with Chuan.  The gruff mainlander is an experienced cyclist, who has made the grueling journey twice before.  He also has a keen appreciation of Tibetan culture, especially the cuisine.

Indeed, Mile is at its best when it celebrates the Tibetan people and culture, most definitely including Tibetan Buddhism.  As a narrative, Zhang Jialu & Cheng Hsiao-tse’s adaptation of Xie Wanglin’s memoir is fairly standard wilderness survival fare, even when circumstances force Zhang to carry on by himself.  Yet, there are a number a genuinely beautiful moments to be found along the way.  The scenes with a young Tibetan widow (sensitively portrayed by Li Tao) and her son are so honest and pure, they are guaranteed to choke viewers up.  Likewise, an encounter with a silent pilgrim on the road to Lhasa is unusually moving, because it expresses so much without words.

Du and cinematographer Du Jie find all the rough hewn beauty in the faces of hardscrabble Tibetans, while also duly basking in the grandeur of the Himalayas.  While the film glosses over many of the contemporary political and cultural challenges Tibetans face, it is still rather forthright regarding the region’s poverty.  Frankly, Mile would be a good candidate for the Rubin Museum’s first rate film program.

As Zhang, Bryan Chang is convincing enough in his physical scenes of exhaustion, dehydration, and desperation.  However, it is Li Xiaochaun who limns out the most fully developed character, with specific (but not excessively quirky) foibles.  Yet, it is Li Tao and several of her fellow Tibetan actors who will truly haunt audiences in a bittersweet kind of way.

1 Mile Above runs far deeper than its arresting scenery (which is spectacular, nonetheless).  This film will make viewers want to visit Tibet (unfortunately a rather tricky proposition)—and not to simply stare at mountain peaks.  Recommended quite highly for those who appreciate spiritually in-the-moment cinema, 1 Mile Above opens tomorrow (6/7) in New York, courtesy of Asia Releasing.