Released in Asia as Kora, 1 Mile Above arrives on American shores with a decidedly less expressive moniker, straightforward as it is to reveal the summit altitude of the city in which the story is ultimately headed. In the Tibetan-Buddhist tradition, kora refers to a spiritual pilgrimage or meditation, an idea marking the film’s effusive subtext, carelessly buried into an ostensible road-picture template. Inspired by true events, the film is all surface movement, in performance, story, and visuals; it luxuriates in spirituality without actually exuding any, constantly at odds with itself as to what film it wants to be and—by definition of tried-and-true feel-good narrative convention—needs to be. Unfortunately, a simple title swap makes Du Jiayi’s debut film’s frenetic mindset all the more explicit.
And frenetic it is—if only to keep the mind from wandering. The young, Taiwanese Shuhou (Bryan Chang) is mourning the sudden death of his brother when he decides to take up his impossible biking expedition: Go to mainland China, specifically Lijiang, and bike into the mile-high Tibetan city of Lhasa. Du executes economic storytelling by indulging in images/passages that frustrate more than enlighten, often at the sacrifice of measured forward momentum, manufacturing cinematic redundancies at breakneck pace to keep Shuhou sweating along with (hopefully) his audience. The filmmaker would rather coast on highly-stylized montages at the expense of dwelling further into distinct story or character nuance; when the film deals an openly spiritual, oftentimes political, hand, we’re never far away from a crude digression demoting an ethereal sense of artistry to hunkered-down artifice. If Shuhou feels textually unhinged, it’s because he is. In what amounts to a bizarre gesture, a poor woman gives Shuhou and a fellow traveler food, blessing it before they eat, with Shuhou’s companion joining her in prayer. With Shuhou essentially indifferent to this, the character warps into an internal conundrum, with he himself never entering a spiritual plane, and yet, the very decision to honor his brother’s spirit by embarking on this journey, and therefore putting the film into play, is a spiritual act.
Du’s thorny subtext, however, admittedly does show some restraint, most notably the frequent cuts to mountain summits, clouds stalking and circling as if to suggest the manipulation of a higher power (which becomes a more compelling alternative to the film’s various hamfisted metaphoric asides). A quiet moment between a young Tibetan boy and the Taiwanese Shouhou almost plays as a political mea culpa of sorts by mainlander Du. But the effect is ultimately fleeting. Immediately following, Du conflates the habitual Malickian sun peeking through each frame with the boy, clearly aiming for celestial loftiness, but correlating into something more unfortunate, indicative of the film’s faux-divinity: Your god is now a poor cherubic Tibetan child.