Film Review: 1 Mile Above

To honor his brother, a Taiwanese graduate bicycles across China and Tibet. Beautiful travelogue with strikingly empty politics.

A beautiful but fierce bicycle route provides the setting for 1 Mile Above, an adaptation of a novel based, as the credits read, on a "true story." Filled with imposing landscapes but missing a compelling plot, the movie functions best as an undemanding travelogue of Yunnan and Tibet.

When his brother dies, recent Taiwanese college grad Zhang Shu-hao (Chang Shu-hao) finds a diary outlining his proposed bicycle trip through Yunnan and across the Tibet border, ending at a palace at Lhasa. Despite no experience with long-distance biking, Shuhao decides to honor his brother by completing the trip himself.

Leaving his girlfriend and family, Shuhao flies to China, where after minor hassles he embarks on his journey. Near Lijiang he meets Li Xiaochuan (Li Xiao Chuan, a wiry, magnetic performer), a veteran biker attempting the same route. The two eventually team up, the older biker offering the younger tips like how to use sanitary napkins to prevent saddle sores.

The route takes the bikers over several mountain ranges, including the Hongla, Yela and Lawu, on narrow roads that switch back to elevations over 13,000 feet. They stay with local families or in the equivalent of hostels, sampling yak butter, sugar cookies and other delicacies.

Shuhao will make new friends, but will also find himself alone, lost and sick, suffering hallucinations brought about by food poisoning. Will he reach Tibet? Or is the journey itself his true goal?

This is the debut feature for director Du Jiayi, previously a producer, and he brings a relatively straightforward, unadorned style to a plot that doesn't have much narrative depth to offer. So while viewers are admiring the undeniably splendid shots of flora and fauna, they will wait in vain for something unexpected to happen.

1 Mile Above offers some spiritual bromides from the veteran biker and several admiring glimpses of religious life. But when it comes to real-life, modern-day politics, the movie adopts an "out of sight, out of mind" stance. Tibet's struggle for freedom from Chinese occupation is absent, as is any sense that Tibet is, or should be, a free, independent country. The story's subtext—a Chinese visitor learns about a foreign culture by taming it for his own uses—eventually outweighs the filmmakers' good intentions.