Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (China/Hong Kong, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There are times when a movie looks a lot better on screen than it sounds from a description, and Kekexili: Mountain Patrol is an example. The one-sentence synopsis of the movie makes it sound like a dull, quasi-documentary conservationist picture when, in reality, it's a gritty, tightly paced film that pits man against man and man against nature. Director Lu Chuan took his lumps by filming the movie on location in an inhospitable locale, but his decision to do so is validated by the final result.

Kekexili is about how human beings, when passionate about something, can put everything, including their lives, at risk for a cause. In this case, the cause is the conservation of an animal species. The events related in Kekexili are loosely based on the historical record from the mid-1990s in the Kekexili region of Tibet, where the Tibetan antelope, which once numbered over a million, had been hunted to near extinction. A group of volunteers, dubbed the "Mountain Patrol," agreed to guard Kekexili from poachers. But, because they were only semi-recognized by the Chinese government, they did not have the power to arrest anyone and they did not receive official funding. (They had to illegally sell confiscated antelope pelts.)

In Kekexili, a journalist from Beijing (Lei Zhang) travels into the mountains of Tibet to meet Ritai (Doubuji), the founder and leader of the Mountain Patrol. Ritai is about to go on a hunt for poachers, so he invites his new guest to accompany him. What follows is a nightmarish journey in which harsh weather conditions, dwindling supplies, and unhelpful detainees become more dangerous enemies than the gun-toting poachers who have already killed one member of the Mountain Patrol.

Kekexili, a plateau that stands between three and four miles above sea level, is arguably the most important character in the film - overshadowing all of the human protagonists. The movie is an example of ethnographic filmmaking - a motion picture that takes us to places few of us are likely to visit and introduces us to alien cultures. Since Lu took his cast and crew to Kekexili, we are provided with a view of this inhospitable place where snowstorms can blow up out of nowhere and quicksand waits to ensnare the unwary traveler. Nearly everyone in Lu's cast and crew suffered altitude sickness during the shoot, and many were hospitalized for a time (including the director). That kind of dedication immeasurably helps Kekexili's verisimilitude.

Since the film was not made under the watch of an animal rights' group, it is possible that animals were harmed during the making of the film. An antelope and a rabbit are shown being shot (although, in the case of the antelope, it may have been with a tranquilizer). And there's a scene reminiscent of the buffalo killing ground from Dances with Wolves. Because of some uncompromising images, the potential exists for sensitive viewers to be disturbed. To me, however, these scenes give Kekexili its power. In order to sympathize with the Mountain Patrol, one needs a graphic representation of what they're fighting for.

Criticisms have been labeled against Kekexili that it's pro-Chinese propaganda (the Chinese government eventually designated Kekexili as an animal preserve) aimed at showing the "good" that accompanied the Chinese occupation of Tibet. While some may choose that view, I see Kekexili as an adventure story with a message, and an opportunity to peer through a window I might otherwise have bypassed.

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (China/Hong Kong, 2004)

Director: Lu Chuan
Cast: Doubuji, Lei Zhang, Liang Qi
Screenplay: Lu Chuan
Cinematography: Cao Yu
Music: Zai Lao
U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:29
U.S. Release Date: 2005-04-14
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: English subtitled Madarin Chinese and Tibetan
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1