"I have never seen such a film as Delamu, in which the local people are so graceful and dignified," a friend of Tian Zhuangzhuang says, because in Tian's inner world, Yunnan is the land closest to God, and its people live a mythical life.
Delamu tells many stories of the people living along the Chamagudao (Tea-Horse Road) in the Nujiang River Valley. There is a family of 15 who communicate with each other in six languages. There's an 84-year-old clergyman and a lady of the Nu ethnic group who, more than 100 years old, can still eat hand-pulled noodles. There is the 82-year-old guotou, or head of the caravan, Ma, a legendary horseman. There's a young man who suffered heartbreak and became a lama, and a Tibetan woman who, as a teacher, refused a proposal of marriage.
The documentary is a mirror of the life of the people in the Nujiang River Valley. It delineates the religious understanding of the local people, as well as their attitude towards death.
In filmmaking, Tian stresses to the extreme composition, lighting, and color of the picture. The documentary captures the scenery of Yunnan's unique ecological environment, such as gorges on the Nujiang River, as well as its rapids and clastic rock banks. Funded by Japan's NHK Television, Delamu is China's first digital documentary.
In China, there are two ancient routes extending to the outside world: the Silk Road in the north and the Chamagudao in the south. In order to make Delamu, Tian and his production unit of more than 10 people hired a caravan of 70 horses and 40 people, traveled from Yunnan to Tibet, and truly experienced the life of the people living along the Chamagudao. They crossed the Nujiang and Lancang rivers.
"Before shooting, I had really created some designs," Tian said. "But, after I arrived at the shooting area, I found that I need not have done designs, but observe and experience the life of the local people attentively." According to Tian, his primary motive for making the documentary was to show what he has felt in this mystical land where religions, cultures and traditions of different ethnic groups naturally blend.
Tian was born in Beijing in 1952 and graduated from the directing department of the Beijing Film Academy in 1982. Since 1978, he has been a director at the Beijing Film Studio. Tian has established his own style. In filmmaking, Tian pays more attention to detailed and vivid expositions of the characters' feelings. Tian has been awarded best director at international film festivals many times.
Tian said that since he has been engaged in film production, he has not sought fame or wealth. During the shooting of Horse Thief, Tian underwent many hardships and nearly lost his life in Tibet. The director was heartbroken when government censors did not allow the film to be shown in China. He was dispirited for a long time and only made several trashy films, such as Rock 'n' Roll Kids and Drum Singer.
Encouraged by Chinese film stars Jiang Wen and Liu Xiaoqing, Tian picked himself up at the age of 40 and directed Li Lianying: The Imperial Eunuch.
On May 7, 2004, after meeting with the audience of Delamu in New York, Martin Scorsese, a famous director in the United States, invited Tian to dinner at his residence. At the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, Scorsese was busy in editing and had no time to see Delamu. He asked the organizing committee of the festival to keep the documentary for him for another week. It had happened at the New York film festival in 2002, when Tian's Springtime in a Small Town was exhibited at the festival and Scorsese was busy in the post-production of Gangs of New York.
After watching Delamu, Scorsese wrote to Tian expressing his excitement. In the letter, he said he was stunned by the documentary, which deeply moved him, especially its music, image, and happy and auspicious atmosphere. Displaying the harmonious blend of different religions and cultures in the area along the Chamagudao, it is a poetic work and a perpetual teaching book of history.
According to a review by A.O. Scott, a renowned critic of the New York Times, Delamu is a great documentary film in terms of quality and artistry. It captures the scenery in remote China, which is natural and incredible and has a strong appeal for people in cities.