Inspired by the novel Zhuan shan 转山 by the Taiwanese writer Xie Wanglin 谢旺霖, One Mile Above takes us on a bicycle journey to Lijiang, a small town in the southern province of Yunnan, through to Lhasa in Tibet. In Taipei, the recently graduated 24-year-old Zhang Shuhao attends the funeral of his older brother, Shuwei. At the funeral he comes into possession of Shuwei’s diary containing his notes about a journey in stages from Lijiang to Lhasa that he wanted to undertake by bike. Desperately saddened by his brother’s death and driven by a desire to escape his grief, Shuhao decides to embark on the journey that his brother was never able to do. The journey therefore takes on great significance. It will not only be a way of celebrating his brother Shuwei and of satisfying his spirit of adventure, it will also be challenge to tackle this extreme trip. He leaves Taiwan and arrives at Lijiang; after some initial hesitation, Shuhao takes to the saddle of his bike at the first light of dawn, taking Shuwei’s diary with him; it will be both a witness and a companion on this journey. The first obstacle will be the main road being cut off by landslides caused by the bad weather. What appears to be bad luck actually turns into a positive experience: Shuhao meets Li Xiaochuan, also travelling to Lhasa, also determined to complete his mission. All those who attempt to reach Lhasa, be it by car, bike or on foot, have a dangerous and arduous task ahead of them. The blessings and prayers of an elderly lady who offers them a accommodation on the first night inaugurates their expedition. The distance between Lijiang and Lhasa is approximately 1,800 km, going from 2416 to 5020 metres above sea level; it could be done in 60 hours, were it not for the natural passage which forces the traveller up and down eight mountains. From Li Jiang (2416 metres a.s.l.) passing Benzilan (2433 metres a.s.l.) and Baima (4300 metres) to Deqin (3390 metres), on the fifth day, Shuhao and Xiaochuan set foot in Tibet. Here they meet a mountain village family who offer them a place to sleep for the night. It’s just a brief stay, but gives both of them something else to take on their way: for Xiaochuan it is the recipe for Tibetan biscuits and for Shuhao, the strength to continue his quest even if it means distancing himself from someone with no guarantee of seeing them ever again. The head of the family warns them of the dangers along their trail, of the Hongla Mountains, and then of Ye La and La Wu. On the seventh day, at the Quzika pass, a serious accident risks paralysing Xiaochuan. His inexperience of the perils of the mountain could cost him his life, but Shuhao does not want to give up. The journey becomes increasingly dangerous on the high peaks, with the snow and ice, the slippery roads that skirt the mountains, not to mention the rain and the attack by Tibetan mastiffs, the bicycle falling to pieces and, last but not least, the silence of solitude and the “voices” of the mountain. It will ultimately be food poisoning that makes him take to bed, his head bombarded with memories of his family and dreams dripping with meaning. The doctor who assists him for two days almost reads his mind, revealing to him that his illness is the kind that cannot be cured by medicine alone. Shuhao can wait no more, and before tackling the final leg of his journey, he takes a few minutes to phone home, leaving a message on an answering machine. The last mountain pass before Lhasa, 5000 metres above sea level, which separates him from his destination will be his greatest challenge, he has finally made the journey his own. The original title of the file, like the title of the novella it was adapted from, Zhuan shan, is ‘Kora’. ‘Kora’ is both a type of pilgrimage and a form of meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. ‘Kora’ is practised walking around a temple, a stupa or a sacred place, such as Lake Namtso and the Kailash mountain, both holy sites in Tibet. It can be practised by moving prayer wheels, repeating mantras, counting mala prayer beads or by kneeling down repeatedly as a meditative exercise to relax the mind. According to the Buddhist tradition and faith, ‘Kora’ should always be done clockwise, and often 108 times.
One Mile Above is an extraordinary specimen of production, managing to bring to light a film made in the same difficulties, experiencing the same dangers as the main character himself. Special acknowledgement must go to the Du Jie’s photography and to Oshima Michiru’s music, to the excellent acting, the story and its rhythm. “I didn’t want to shoot a film just to show the beauty of the views in Yunnan and Tibet,” comments the director Du Jiayi, “What I wanted was a film about people and their feelings. I don’t think Shuhao is heroic. During his journey, he discovers an innate unbendable quality in people, that of searching for true values and the intrinsic power hidden in life.”