Kekexili: Mountain Patrol
A thought provoking and beautiful movie, the second movie from Lu Chuan (The Missing Gun) is a real winner – and finally getting the release it deserves…
It’s rather reaffirming that, despite pressures to the contrary, Chinese filmmakers have made and continue to make, thoughtful and often controversial films that are still entertaining. Film like Blind Shaft and the works of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have helped make them unpopular in their own country. Sadly it’s not just those directors who have moved away from touchy subjects towards more mainstream wuxia/swordplay subjects, film companies have rarely released let alone promoted such films, meaning nearly all of Yimou’s and Kaige’s back catalogue remains unavailable in the United Kingdom on DVD, even the Oscar nominated Raise The Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine.
Lu Chuan‘s Kekexili: Mountain Patrol was another movie that fell through the cracks. Thankfully Axiom Films (who are rapidly becoming one of the great advocates of superior foreign movies) have picked it up for a full theatrical release.
Based on a true story, Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), a journalist from Beijing is assigned to follow a mountain patrol in the Quinghu province of China, in the unforgiving environment of the Tibetan plateau, after local poachers have killed a member of the patrol.
Set up to protect the Tibetan Antelope and run by volunteers, their leader Ri Tai (Duo bujie) is determined to bring the poachers to justice, even though they have no funding for fuel or supplies. Worse still, at these high altitudes the territory itself is just as treacherous as the poachers. The harsh conditions make it impossible for Ga Yu to remain an impartial observer as he begins to become friends with members of the patrol.
Plucked almost entirely from local people rather than trained actors, there’s a fresh, naturalistic approach to the drama. There are no happy endings here – in fact director Lu Chuan changed his original ending – but a truth about their situation. Chuan spent a reasonable amount of time with the natives of the area, even interviewing ex-mountain patrol members and ex-poachers. (The old fur skinner was once a poacher, his character didn’t exist in the movie until one of Lu’s staff discovered him in a casting session.) The result is a faithful portrayal of their lives, religion and culture. And, of course, the respect they have to pay to the harsh Tibetan landscape.
It dominates their existence simply because of its harshness. Lu pays reverence to it too, capturing some of its immenseness on film. Beautiful and dangerous, it touches and affects everything, becoming as much a character as the patrol members themselves. During the film, Chuan even shows the local tradition of ‘buring’ the dead at the top of mountains, their bodies left for vultures and birds of prey.
The environment inspires some of the films most memorable moments, such as when a patrol member chases one of the poachers. The extreme altitude quickly slows them down, as they end up collapsing on each other exhausted. And then there’s the quicksand!
Perhaps most interesting is the moral position the patrol finds themselves in. Out of money, fuel and supplies, they are left with no choice but to sell the very furs they are meant to be protecting just to go on. But Lu’s intelligent film does not pass any judgement on them.
Kekexili is a thought provoking, beautiful film, well deserving of this wider theatrical release. You’d be a fool to miss it…