Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

on April 14, 2006 by Wade Major
At an altitude of four miles above sea level, the Tibetan plain known as Kekexili is a bona-fide natural wonder -- a vast, unspoiled wilderness where for centuries the indigenous Tibetan antelope ran wild and free. Then came the encroachment of civilization and the inevitable onslaught of poachers eager to slaughter the animals for their pelts. In just a few decades, the antelope's numbers had been reduced from over a million to barely 10 thousand.

Based on events that transpired in the early- to mid-1990s, "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili" details the valiant efforts of a small volunteer patrol to combat and, with luck, capture those responsible for the carnage. Written and directed by sophomore Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan, arguably one of the most talented new Sino-cinema talents, this spectacularly-photographed, deeply moving tale makes no effort to hide its pedigree -- fans of Asian ethnographic cinema in particular will instantly be reminded of Akira Kurosawa's "Dersu Uzala," Tian Zhuangzhuang's "Horse Thief" and "On the Hunting Ground" and the recent Nepalese Oscar nominee "Himalaya" (aka "Caravan"). But Lu has also crafted a surprisingly commercial tale that should have substantial appeal even outside the realm of Asian art film aficionados.

Lured by an escalation in violence between the patrol and the poachers, Beijing journalist Ga Yu (Zhang Lei) ventures to Tibet and tags along on a poacher-hunting posse led by local hero Ri Tai (Duo Bujie). But the expedition becomes increasingly treacherous as they track their quarry into Kekexili's most remote regions, where they must contend with ice, mud, snow, depleted provisions and the ever-present threat of quicksand.

One could imagine a lesser filmmaker easily caving to the story's polemical underpinnings and delivering a kind of Tibetan "Daktari," complete with snarling poachers and holier-than-thou villagers. But Lu sees a broader context here, which, seemingly even the Chinese censors failed to catch. For the real subtext pertains to the environmental and cultural fallout from China's 1950 annexation of Tibet, specifically the notion that China has done far more damage to the region than they can ever hope to repair.

Lu's breakthrough is also a further triumph for National Geographic's nascent World Films unit (previous efforts include the award-winning documentaries "March of the Penguins" and "The Story of the Weeping Camel") whose goal of bringing their branding success in publishing to the movie business remains firmly on track. Starring Duo Bujie, Zhang Lei and Qi Liang. Directed and written by Lu Chuan. Produced by Wang Zhonglei. A Goldwyn release. Drama. Mandarin- and Tibetan-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 92 min

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