"Mountain Patrol: Kekexili" is, happily, nothing that it quite seems to be. Eco-friendly, "National Geographic"-funded story of an endangered species? Ripped-from-the-headlines true-life murder tale? Grandiose Herzogian treatise on man versus nature? None of those easy tags seem particularly applicable, nor do they do justice to Lu Chuan's visually enveloping expose, which has a narrative as deceptively complex as it is generically misleading. Lu's previous film, 2002's "The Missing Gun" was a more direct flirtation with genre filmmaking, yet still a flirtation nonetheless; one always got the sense that his mind was elsewhere, and that the peripheral moments were telling the real story.
Likewise, "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili," which is based on true events, begins with strict storytelling parameters that seem to portend a simple straight cause-and-effect search for justice, and then proceeds to confound expectations. With its staggering use of widescreen, tricky perspective transference, and vicious, throttling violence, Lu's film engages with its tale of protectors, victims, and wilderness in ways both elemental and thoroughly discursive.
More than anything else, "Mountain Patrol" is a story of dying breeds, whether that be the Tibetan antelope, named the chiru, or the volunteers attempting to protect them in the mountains of Tibet from greedy, seemingly amoral poachers. Beginning with a swift, brutal execution of one of these volunteers, shot with a devastating, insinuating laconism, the film then goes on to detail the efforts of his fellow volunteers to curtail the deaths of the chiru, and bring those who would murder and mutilate them to justice. However, this is no adorable group of heroic compadres. Lu keeps us at an odd arm's length, even as he creates a naive audience surrogate to seemingly dig further into the inner workings of the group, led by the stoic, impenetrable, yet noticeably melancholy Ri Tai (the fierce and commanding Duobuji). A bright-eyed photojournalist from Beijing, named Ga Yu (played by Zhang Lei) arrives in Tibet to document the watchful journeys of these men with his camera, only to discover that unrepentant brutality exists not only in the heartless yet desperate poachers but in the volunteer patrolmen themselves, as well as in the forbidding landscape of the Tibetan mountains.
There's a refreshing sense of looseness in Lu's dazzling aesthetic control; as if he knew that though every frame had to be carefully composed, he had to leave room for the little side moments that would bring us closer. Or at least as close as we can possibly get: in widescreen tableaux of parched lands as punishing as anything in a John Ford western, characters are constantly dwarfed by their surroundings, as much as they try to gain supremacy over each other and their world.
The most shocking, indelible image in the film comes via a hidden patch of quicksand that gobbles one of the men up with a solemn callousness; but the most revelatory narrative gambit is much more complex: after siding with this dirty dozen-esque troupe of ecological guardsmen, we find our alliances and sympathies thrown into quandary. Are Ri Tai and his team's unforgiving retaliations and merciless moments of retribution the proper punishment for the poachers' crimes, which admittedly seem to stem from some form of economic hardship and toil? With his ever-escalating series of violent skirmishes, "Mountain Patrol" becomes a terrifying trudge towards sure death, one that is swallowed up by nature's cruel apathy, and in which easy right-wrong, good-bad polarities end up as vaporous as the cold, wind-blown dust that ultimately covers everything in its midst, including the camera.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and a contributor to Film Comment.]
By James Crawford
During one of many quietly beautiful moments in Lu Chuan's lyrical, spare "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili," one mountain patroller says to another that every step on the forbidding Qinghai-Tibetan plateau could be the "first footprint since the beginning of time." But, as Chuan asks throughout the film--first subtly, then didactically--is preserving an endangered species worth the risk to human life? His response is deeply ambivalent.
In "Mountain Patrol"'s first half-explained vignette, poachers hunt down chiru antelope with military-spec automatic rifles, and abruptly execute a patrol member in front of the cold headlights of their jeeps. Therefore: poachers bad, patrol good. But as the nuances of the region's socioeconomic conditions are revealed, the axes of sympathy and rectitude are obliterated as if by the unrelenting snow. Ri Tai, with his Ahab-like obsession with bringing down the poaching ringleader, is impassive to the perpetual starvation-poverty of the black market underlings--one skinned chiru pelt will net a grunt only five Yuan, or approximately 65 U.S. cents--and a depraved indifference to their lives. So by the time Ri sends low-level poachers out into the wilderness on foot as food runs short (an action tantamount to murder), it's nearly impossible to find your way back to "Mountain Patrol"'s initial state of easily digestible polarities.
It's appropriate then that the reporter who initiates the film's inquiry is also a photographer, because the medium suffers from a moral disconnect: landscapes that are pleasing to the eye are rarely, if ever, amenable to human habitation. Yu Cao's cinematography addresses this disconnect, oppressing Ri's dishevelled troupe under the weight of expansive mountain ranges--breathtakingly beautiful, but harsh and foreboding too. To that end, I'm sure that "Mountain Patrol" scans for some like a dramatized "National Geographic" article (the magazine is one of the film's producing partners), but to my mind, the drama's non-fiction ancestry bolsters a tale that is ethically, emotionally, and aesthetically complex.
[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]
Eco-fretting is not smiled upon past a certain age here in the States. We oblige our youngest to celebrate Earth Day and lose sleep over the big picture--species extinction, the destruction of rainforests, global warming, and so on--while we generally root the environment from our core anxieties around the age we hit adolescence (at least I did). We're glad that there are scientists in universities worrying about this stuff, but when it comes to polite conversation, whale-huggers and bleeding hearts are not our favorite people, no matter what our politics.
Accordingly, in last year's "Grizzly Man," many of Werner Herzog's interviewees (and subsequently, audience members) found Timothy Treadwell's fascination with bears to be proof of infantilism. But Herzog suggested a different interpretation--because the capacity for connection between human being and wild animal is so tenuous and abstract, compromising one's safety for another species is an act of zealotry, eerily akin to religious fundamentalism. Following this idea to the extreme, the heavily armed volunteer vigilantes in Lu Chuan's "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili," brave hostile climates to hunt down poachers of the endangered Tibetan Antelope, prized for its luxurious wool. Heavy with spiritual overtones, "Mountain Patrol" is based on actual events in the mid-Nineties and was filmed on-site at an altitude of 15,500 feet in the uninhabited tundra of Tibet's Kekexili region.
The film recounts a Beijing reporter's horrific experience riding with the anti-poaching patrolmen at the height of violence. His story ultimately motivated the Chinese government to intercede and create a national reserve in Kekexili. Lu Chuan deftly guides our sympathies toward the patrolmen while maintaining empathy for the impoverished Tibetans for whom poaching is an economic imperative. He resists resulting to romanticism, portraying both groups as rival militias equally capable of brutality. It may be tempting to read "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili" as a metaphor for any number of messy, ideology-driven conflicts on distant shores, but in doing so we fail to notice the obvious irony--here is a condemnation of ecological apathy rendered in the mold of the American western. We are clearly indicted.
[Leah Churner is a staff writer at Reverse Shot.]