Winding through variegated landscapes of staggering beauty, Chinese helmer Tian Zhuangzhuang (“Blue Kite”) accompanies a caravan as it travels down the Tea Horse Road, the highest and most perilous of the world’s ancient routes. A film of complex contradictions beneath its surface serenity, “Delamu” makes stopovers at isolated villages along the Nijiang River Valley between China and Tibet (the actual geographical inspiration for the mythical “Shangri-La”) to give expression of what may be a vanishing way of life. Ravishing, ecologically resonant docu may outdo helmer’s upcoming fiction release “Springtime in a Small Village” for nature-loving auds.
Pack-laden mules wend their way around hairpin turns along narrow paths that hug the irregular contours of craggy mountain peaks. Cinematographers Wang Yu and Wu Qiao sometimes tuck themselves into the procession, a tail’s switch away from the mules ahead. At other times they capture the scene from above as the convoy crosses swaying wooden suspension bridges over deep gorges, while far below the river flows like liquid mercury at twilight. Or, in extreme long-shot, the caravan might be pictured as a long line of tiny figures traversing the shifting sands of a treacherous cliff-face across the valley.
A wrangler makes his way down the mountainside to eulogize his fallen steed. He praises its beauty and endurance, and is eloquent in expressing how much its death will hurt him economically; though obviously tearful and emotionally distraught, he is quick to ascribe all sentimentality to his wife and children who, he asserts, will miss the mule greatly. Pic gets its name from one of the man’s three surviving animals: “Delamu,” in Tibetan, translates as “peaceful angel.”
Ironically, the mules are hauling building supplies for a more modern thoroughfare that will eventually supplant them and make obsolete the millennia-old Tea Horse Road, along with the livelihood of the wranglers and the lifestyles of the villagers en route. Inhabitants fear the new road will allow swarming tourists to overrun their peace and tranquility.
Yet the Nijiang River Valley’s mystical Zen purity and far-side-of-nowhere isolation are in many ways misleading, because generations of history have left their mark.
In rustic villages in the Yunnan and forgotten border towns of Tibet, villagers recount their memories, with political upheaval and personal deprivation intimately intertwined. A feisty 104-year-old woman relates how, under the Gang of Four, she was forced to leave her young children to dig ditches, while her husband was taken away never to return. A priest, arrested for practicing his religion, tells of coming home after 16 years to a village that believed him dead.
Tian films his villagers in long takes, in available light, framed in doorways, against rocks or by flickering fires, painting portraits that vie in texture and complexity with his more purely scenic compositions. Man and nature reflect each other in a fragile primordial balance captured here perhaps for the last time.
Tech credits are superlative.