Starring: Duobuji, Zhang Lei, Qi Liang, Xueying Zhao. Not rated.
Lu Chuan’s Mountain Patrol: Kekexili depicts the real-life struggles of a group of Tibetans in dogged pursuit
of poachers, who illegally hunt the endangered Tibetan antelope for its precious (and very costly) wool. Given that premise,
it might be tempting to assume that his film, which was co-produced by Columbia and National Geographic, is a plea for increased
environmental concern and respect for animal rights. And it is, to some extent. But Lu takes a subtler tack, presenting an
objective, unsentimental account of man’s indifference to nature and his fellow man. It makes for compelling drama,
infused with added poignancy because of its basis in a depressing reality.
Kekexili, named after a Himalayan region particularly hard-hit by rampant poaching in the mid-’90s, tells the
story of Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), a Beijing reporter who joins a band of grizzled patrollers as they set out on an unforgiving search
for hunters. And though Ga Yu proves a savvy outdoorsman, quickly adapting to life on the austere Tibetan terrain, he’s
not the star of the show. Indeed, the only character that really matters in Kekexili is the land itself, the mountainous
backdrop set against the barren plateaus, the treacherous quicksand and the marshy bogs. Yu Cao’s cinematography is
breathtaking, to be sure, but it also drives home an important point -– that the earth so routinely plundered by man
has the capacity to fight back.
And fight back it does, as, in one unflinching sequence, one fo Ga Yu’s fellow patrollers is literally sucked into the
ground by a patch of quicksand. It is a riveting image, but no more disturbing than the mangled, bloody carcasses of antelope
strewn casually about the countryside. There are few live antelope on display in Kekexili, undoubtedly because poachers
had so drastically reduced their population by the time Ga Yu traveled to Tibet in 1996. But Lu doesn’t stress the point
so much that his film turns into a preachy indictment of the poachers, who are largely portrayed as victims of poverty willing
to sacrifice their ethics for a chance to survive. Instead, he depicts life in the Tibetan mountains as a desperate battle
against unthinkable hardship, the kind that drives men to destroy the planet, and each other.