In the desolate, mountainous no-man’s-land of Kekexili in western China, the Tibetan antelope are struggling to survive the Greed of man. Their only hope lies with the newly formed Mountain Patrol, a hardened group of Tibetan men from all walks of life. Ill equipped and unpaid by the provincial government that formed them, these men, under the command of their ex-military leader Ritai (Duo Bujie), fearlessly patrol the barren wastelands against machine-gunned poachers and their more docile, but slippery minions. To these men, it’s a thankless job, but somebody’s got to do it. Based on true events, Lu Chuan’s “Mountain Patrol: Kekexili” is a richly cinematic chronicle/harrowing survival tale of these brave souls, set against a truly breathtaking backdrop.
“Kekexili” is more or less told from the point of view of Gayu (Zhang Lei), an ambitious young journalist from Beijing whose idea to report on the mountain patrol may just end up being his last. For not long after he joins up with an initially reluctant Ritai and his men, the patrol’s routine journey to the mountains proves anything but. After stumbling upon a field littered with hundreds of skinned antelope carcasses, the patrol commence a desperate pursuit of the poachers under the relentless leadership of Ritai. Like Herzog’s Aguirre, though decidedly less insane, Ritai drives his men beyond the point of exhaustion as they battle the elements, brutal poachers, pulmonary edema, quicksand, and a dearth of food, fuel, and ammo. In order just to survive their horribly gone awry mission and apprehend the poachers in the process, the patrol resorts to such unpleasantries as leaving some of their own behind and dining on raw rabbit meat (mmm mmm good!). Through it all, Gayu’s efforts to remain the invisible reporter are undermined by his increasingly active and emotional role in this grand human (and animal) tragedy. According to the film’s footnote, it was journalists like Gayu who broke the extraordinary story of Kekexili to the world and prompted the eventual governmental protection of this stunning natural wonder.
With a running time of only 90 minutes, “Kekexili” is an epic without an epic length. Though more time may have allowed director/screenwriter Lu Chuan to more fully develop his characters, the film’s brevity and efficiency of plot is kind of refreshing in a way, and proof that Big films need not always be three hours long. From a visual standpoint, “Kekexili” is, as to be expected, simply astonishing. Not only do Lu Chuan and cinematographer Cao Yu make beautiful use of their generous natural palette (that’s the easy part), they also capture the human element of this story in equally bold strokes. In cinematic terms, Lu Chuan’s script most closely resembles that of a classic western, with good guys battling bad guys over sticky questions of morality on a grand scale. And like the most fascinating examples of this genre, wherein the good guys are sometimes forced to bend their own moral laws for the greater good, the unpaid patrolmen of “Kekexili” must occasionally barter in the very thing they are tasked with outlawing: the hide of antelopes. “Kekexili” is ultimately a complex meditation on this moral conundrum, a raw tale of survival against impossible odds, and a dashing adventure yarn all in one.