Mountain Patrol (Kekexili)
2006Director: Chuan Lu
Cast: Duo Bujie, Lei Zhang
he Kekexili region of Tibet, barren and nearly lifeless, stretches endlessly out toward the horizon. Not altogether dissimilar from the vast nothingness of the arctic tundra, save for intermittent shrubbery scattered throughout the landscape, the whole area just feels dead. In this place, a man can vanish without a trace, swallowed up by the cruel, unforgiving indifference of nature. Whether literally engulfed by the hazards of the land itself or hollowed out spiritually within the depths of one’s soul, the land works over all who tread upon it. It is within this habitat that the Tibetan antelope, nearly extinct from massive amounts of poaching, eke out their final refuge.
Enter the mysterious men of the mountain patrol. Not officially employed by the Chinese government, these men volunteer to watch over this desolate region in order to protect the antelopes from further genocide at the hands of the ruthless poachers who collect their precious pelts, which are sold to make shaatoosh (a refined shawl worn by women of affluence).
Chuan Lu’s film teases us with the notion of a conventional story about the harm man does to nature, but unexpectedly sidesteps it entirely in favor of a more Western-tinged narrative, aesthetically aligned with the work of Sergio Leone. If the film’s sole message is of an environmental idealism, it certainly does not depict it in a positive light, let alone attempt to paint the environment itself as a sanctuary for those who seek to preserve it. From the opening moments of the film, in which we see hundreds of antelopes mercilessly slaughtered along with an abducted member of the mountain patrol, it becomes clear that Kekexili seeks a far more divergent path that nearly overshadows any possible message of preservation.
The murder of the patrolman provokes a Chinese newspaper to dispatch a young journalist by the name of Ga Yu (Lei Zhang) to cover the tribulations of these fearless men of the Tibetan mountain patrol. Once there, he meets their leader, Ri Tai (Duo Bujie), whose weathered countenance recalls the grizzled veteran embodied by John Wayne in many a Western. As Ga Yu follows them on their quest to hunt down the poachers who killed their comrade, he learns more about the complexities of their existence. They haven’t been paid in over a year, and since the government doesn’t officially employ them, they receive no funding and must therefore raise the money to cover all their expenses on their own. Ga Yu is shocked to discover that, at times, this requires them to sell the pelts they’ve confiscated from poachers in order to continue their activities. This creates an obvious hypocrisy since, by selling the pelts of the animal they’re sworn to protect, they are in effect undermining those efforts, reducing themselves to their adversaries’ equal.
As they tread further from civilization, the means facilitating their inevitable return begin to diminish. Their supplies run low, as does their fuel. Some of their comrades are wounded in a raid on subordinates of the poachers and are forced to return to the village. At this point, Ri Tai’s desire for justice wanders dangerously close to obsession as he begins to resemble an Ahab or a Marlow at the helm of this mission, forsaking the well-being of his men in the singular pursuit of his ultimate target.
What develops is a conflict analogous to those depicted in so many of Herzog’s greatest films, pitting man’s psyche against the ruthlessness of nature. Chuan Lu follows in suit, only, unlike Herzog, who positioned his crazed anti-heroes as men in conflict with nature, Chuan disguises his as fanatics under the guise of protectors of nature. Surprisingly, National Geographic is one of the American distributors of the film. Perhaps they were drawn toward its documentary-style presentation and its environmental subject matter, not to mention that it’s based on actual events. Viewers looking for a film examining the region in the same way one might observe such details in a television documentary will likely leave with a sour taste in their mouths; this is something else entirely.
I recommend the film for its dark subject matter and its unrelenting take on the indifference of nature, but not to anyone expecting anything even slightly inspirational. The film’s message, if any, suggests that man’s struggle to liberate nature does not differ greatly from the urge to subdue it. Both sides seek to manipulate an order that thrives despite the continued efforts of mankind on both sides of the spectrum. What results is a depressing acceptance that we matter little in its eyes. Chuan’s dismal worldview may very well place us in the same position as that unfortunate member of the mountain patrol who finds himself trapped in quicksand: at first, he attempts to struggle against it, to release himself from its tenacious grip. But as the cold, grim reality of his fate becomes manifest, he relinquishes that struggle and slowly succumbs to the unfeeling earth.
Mountain Patrol is now playing in limited release across the country.