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Friday, August 22, 2014

Delamu (The Tea Horse Road), 2004

Delamu (Cha ma gu dao xi lie), 2004
no copyright infringement intended

There is no place like home, as the word goes. Well, sometimes it's different. For Tian Zhuang-Zhuang, one of the greatest Chinese film directors, home seems to be one or other of those regions at the border, as remote from the center as it can be, whose inhabitants still live following ancestral rhythms, sometimes speaking an idiom of their own, unknown even in the neighboring regions, sometimes observing traditions and rituals long time forgotten anywhere else, almost totally  decoupled from what's going on in the rest of the country. One of his first movies, On the Hunting Ground (猎场在狩, 1984), was a docudrama about a traditional community of hunters from Inner Mongolia. His next film, The Horse Thief (1986) was unfolding its plot in Tibet in some indefinite time (a year, 1923, specified in the first scene, while everything there breathing the eternal). A movie made much later, The Warrior and the Wolf (2009), definitely immersed in legend: a story of longtime ago, taking place (again) at the border, with people becoming wolves when falling in love...

Parajanov comes to mind (first of all his Тіні забутих предків, but also his other works, maybe not so directly). I would call this kind of movies cinematic anthropology - observing traditional societies not yet altered by modernity, as a way to better understand our own identity, where we come from and who we are.

And this anthropological flavor can be noted also in other of Tian's movies, not dedicated to faraway regions: Springtime in a Small Town (2002) revives a forgotten masterpiece from 1948 of Chinese cinema; The Go Master (2006) is a deconstruction of a Chinese genius of Go who has spent all his life in Japan. The same tendency to go away in time or in space, in a quest of understanding our collective and individual identity. Well, we know what happened when Tian tackled the recent history of China, in Blue Kite (1993): he was banned from making movies for ten years.

Delamu, made in 2004, is a documentary dedicated to the Ancient Tea-Horse Road, a mule caravan path used for more than two thousand years, connecting Yunnan (the origin homeland of tea, it seems) and Tibet, from there opening its gates toward India and Western Asia, and ultimately toward Europe. The name comes from the trade of Yunnan tea-bricks for Tibetan ponies, and it is through this road that tea spread across the world. It can be considered an alternate Silk Road.

Anyway, this Ancient Tea-Horse Road is an extremely dangerous route, winding through high mountains, on narrow paths sometimes carved between vertical slopes and precipices, traversing gorges on very unstable suspended bridges, or even on ropes stretched between the two sides: men and animals tied to these ropes.

So it is not for everyone to make the Tea Road, while it is the occupation of people living there, in the tiny villages from the region. An occupation passing from one generation to another, since the very beginnings. They make a living from traveling on this route with their mules, carrying tea, salt, grains, bartering them in the other villages.

Jeff Fuchs, the Canadian mountaineer and author, was the first Westerner to  trek the entire Tea-Horse Road, covering six thousand kilometers around there, and writing a book that I intend to read. And Tian Zhuang-Zhuang spent some months there, together with a  small film crew, befriending the people, quietly listening to their stories, patiently trying to understand their traditions and their ways, following them on the Tea Road with the camera. It resulted a gorgeous documentary. The people are approached with great empathy, it is a universe very different from ours, in the same time a world where anything can happen, and the sole rule is to expect the unexpected. Two brothers are married with the same woman, they explain that it's only normal, as each of them is missing long time with the caravans. A priest considered lost during the Cultural Revolution lives there. A family of devout Catholics lives in the village (actually only one of the spouses is Catholic, the other is Buddhist, and everybody's happy). An old woman (seemingly older than hundred) tells how she kicked off her lazy husband and found another one (presumably less lazy). A female schoolteacher wants to leave her job and go out to find the ideal man (who knows how to talk to her, and how to love her - a toxic mix, if you ask me). As one can see, the simplicity of life hides a certain sophistication of spirit.

People rely on their mules for their travels on the Tea Road. This creates a formidable bond between human and animal. The movie takes its title (Delamu) from the name of a mule: it's a Tibetan word meaning Peace Angel.

And above all this, the landscape, a road toward the transcendent. The journey to decipher all our unknowns starts here.Splendid movie!

However, there is something essential about this movie that I haven't said anything about. Like in all his other works, the contemporaneity is actually present (sometimes elusively, here directly). A large auto road is in construction, and the Ancient Tea Trail will disappear; the caravans on the perilous paths will become useless, and the raison d'être of these people will die. The mules of the last caravan on the Tea Road carry materials for the construction site. This movie is an elegy for a vanishing universe.

(Tian Zhuang-Zhuang)

(Jeff Fuchs)

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