Language: Mandarin, Tibetan
Director: Du Jiayi
Based on the original book of the same title by: Xie Wanglin
Screenplay: Zhang Jialu, Cheng Hsiao-Tse
Cinematography: Jie Du
Soundscore: Ōshima Michiru
Cast: Chang Shuhao (also known as Bryan Chang), Li Xiao Chuan, Li Tao
Runtime: 89 min
Trailer: Trailer 1 at asianwiki.com, Trailer 2 on YouTube (slightly longer)
When a film makes you cry halfway through, there is clearly something special about it. Although introduced at the Terracotta Film Festival as a production with ‘spectacular landscape scenery’, the real beauty and heart of Zhuǎn shān lie, no matter how jaw-dropping the views of the Himalayas get, in the very real depiction of human connections within the film – of strangers that find, despite the radically different worlds that they come from, that at the core they (and we) are all the same.
Based on a real-life story of the same title, in Zhuǎn shān Chang Shuhao (Chang Shuhao), a 22-year old Taiwanese man, has just graduated from college when his brother Shuwei dies. The elder sibling’s death comes unexpectedly, leaving the family both in shock and heartbroken. Unable to settle back into everyday life, Shuhao decides to cycle from Lijiang, China, to Lhasa, Tibet – the whole 1800 km of it, with elevation fluctuating between four and five thousand metres and no real cycling experience -, a journey that was originally planned by the elder brother. The film recounts the trip and the many challenges (closed-off roads, harsh weather conditions, a pack of wild Tibetan mastiffs ready to tear any human encountered to pieces) that Shuhao faces along the way.
At the beginning of a long, long journey: Shuhao and Chuan.
One of the first persons that the young man crosses paths with is Li Xiao Chuan (Li Xiao Chuan), a Chinese native at least a decade or two older, who has completed the journey already twice before. Although Chuan seems like a bit of a lone wolf at first, Shuhao tags onto the much more experienced cyclist, finding a companion that has much to teach him about biking under extreme conditions (winter!) on some of the highest roads in the world, interacting with locals in these remote regions and life in general. Chuan is a delightful addition also for viewers as he turns out to be, in part due to a rather curious fixation on baking, an unexpectedly amusing as well as a multi-dimensional character, knowingly instructing Shuhao how to charm a girlfriend with the perfect cupcake and convincing an elderly villager to teach him how to make Tibetan butter cookies.
Shuhao meets many other people on the way. From the shamelessly exploitative youngster who tries to trick him into buying a fake, useless ID to the wrinkle-faced, 75-year old woman that serves him his first yak butter tea and, when hearing where the two men are headed, starts praying over her japa mala to ensure their safety, to the village children that run smile-faced and cheering after the cyclists, all of the individuals are recognisable for anyone who has travelled in that part of Asia and feel incredibly authentic – perhaps because most are not professional actors but in fact local people from the area. Zhuǎn shān also knows how to handle the encounters in a realistic manner. When Shuhao’s feelings are briefly stirred by a young widowed village woman (in this case played by an actress, Li Tao), the film avoids entering artificial territory, keenly aware that, with the characters being worlds apart, a relationship would be too far-fetched.
A prostrating pilgrim to Lhasa: an even more arduous road to take…
Meanwhile, realism is abandoned in other moments as the journey to Lhasa becomes more strenuous and Shuhao’s increasing despair turns into feverish hallucinations. In his delirium he sees a mythical creature (completely white, half yak, half unicorn in appearance) as well as his dead brother. The shift is unforeseen and adds another layer to the film while heightening the depiction of Shuhao’s mental and emotional experience. Cinematography (shot by Jie Du) and soundscore (composed by Ōshima Michiru) also complement this, conveying the intensity of the journey in terms of the challenging physical terrain as well as Shuhao’s inner struggle through impressive vistas but also via little details of dust flaring up in slow motion as the traveller solemnly plants his first step into Tibet.
On top of the world, where heaven and earth are often dangerously close.
One cannot help but wonder about the filming conditions that Zhuǎn shān was made in. As Shuhao’s journey is at the beginning of the winter, shooting took place during the most severe of seasons, actors, crew and equipment being at the mercy of the elements. Du Jiayi, the director, revealed in interviews (see also links below) that he initially was not sure whether it would be possible to make the film at such high altitudes at all. Setbacks were common and the conditions harsh at all levels:
[W]hen we were there we had one bucket of water for drinking, cleaning, and so on. We worked 17 hour days. I went there to scout locations in June, started preparations in September and when we began shooting in October it started to snow. The mountains were covered with snow so we had to use chains on our tyres to prevent slipping. It was freezing; our recording equipment failed because of the low temperatures. It was terrible! (from TimeOut Shanghai interview)
Particularly the lead actor, newcomer Chang Shuhao, was pushed to his limits – physically and emotionally, with the director purposefully isolating him and closing off escape routes -, resulting in a compelling portrayal of the gentle, yet obstinately determined Taiwanese cyclist.
If there are complaints to be made, they are about Zhuǎn shān’s ending, which felt somewhat rushed and offered only a glimpse of Potala Palace (པོ་ཏ་ལ) to suggest that Shuhao has reached his destination – not enough to give closure. How did Shuhao’s cycling companion fare in the end? Did Chuan overcome hardship to finally run the bakery of his dreams? And what about Shuhao’s return to his family and girlfriend back in Taiwan? Certainly for Chuan some clues would have been welcome, even if not essential for the story per se. Interestingly, this interview from the film’s world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival seems to suggest that a different version of the film that does include scenes of Shuhao’s homecoming exists, which leaves me to wonder why these were edited out in the UK’s cinematic release.
And the scene that made me cry? It is the briefest of moments, in which Shuhao bids a little boy that he has spent a couple of days with goodbye. Barely a word is uttered, a question remains unanswered as the two simply look into each other’s eyes. Blink, and you will miss it, but watch, and the sincerity of a child’s feelings will tug at your heartstrings.
Overall Verdict: Although visually stunning – even more so considering the extreme conditions under which Zhuǎn shān was made – the heart of Du Jiayi’s debut film really lies in the human relationships, however briefly they exist, that it touchingly portrays.
- Kora, as the film was originally called, is a Tibetan word that refers to both pilgrimage and a form of meditation within Tibetan Buddhism. (Note: I am not sure why the film’s title was changed, it may have been to distinguish it from the unrelated 2010 documentary of the same name.)
- Xie Wanglin’s bestselling book does not seem to be available in English translation (nor in German, French or Spanish, the other languages I checked for). A copy in the original language can be obtained on yesasia.com.
- Zhuǎn shān won the Award for Best Artistic Contribution at the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival.
- Tokyo International Film Festival interview with the director and two of the actors
- TimeOut Shanghai’s interview with the director
This is as close I myself have gotten to Tibet – Pangong Tso in Ladakh, State of Jammu & Kashmir, India. The eastern end of the lake lies in Tibet, but you cannot cross over the border. I felt touched by Zhuǎn shān in part because I could, having travelled in nearby regions, imagine it so well – the landscape, the people, the culture encountered. (Image © by alualuna’s Dad).