Saving the world from mankind, or even trying to, is an ungratifying job. So, what good is the job of a animal preservationist? He lives alone in a desolate expanse of mountains, claws through dust, risks his life to save animal from poachers. Chinese adventure saga "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili" (2004) takes the story of a conservationist, fighting against poachers — who had nearly wiped out the Tibetan antelope. The movie takes place in Chinese-controlled Tibet, in a vast, arid area of plateau, and it is based on a true story (happened in the mid 1990's). The plot synopsis might make you believe that it is a dull docu-drama, but "Kekexili", filmed in an inhospitable locale, is a gritty and tightly paced man. The movie pits man against nature and man against man. It's landscape exhibits a ferocious intensity that could be only seen in a Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog movie ("Aguirre", "Fitzcarraldo","Days of Heaven", "New World").
We are told that, the Tibetan antelopes are killed by poachers for their pelts, reducing antelope population from 1 million to about 10,000. The Chinese government doesn't care much, at least until the arrival of a young Beijing journalist named Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), who amalgamates himself with the mountain patrol. The mountain patrol is like a nongovernmental vigilante group (they do not have the power to arrest anyone), whose members are recruited from villages surrounding the "Kekexili" reserve. To stop these illegal hunting, they take matters into their own hands. At the start of the film, the poachers kidnap a member of mountain patrol and execute him.
The Beijing reporter befriends the wizened and charismatic patrol leader, Ri tai (Duobuji), by convincing him that the publicity will be good for his cause (to declare the expanse as a natural reserve). Ri tai invites the journalist to accompany his patrol of volunteers for the nightmarish journey, in which they have face harsh weather conditions and gun-toting poachers. Soon, Ga Yu discovers that thwarting poachers is not just a job. It's a war. They have to leave their women behind, and braving the chilly, arid climes, only to show up in front of vast expanses of antelope carcasses. Gu is shocked, when he sees the patrolmen selling antelope pelts (they'd confiscated from the poachers), who actually has no little money or authority.
Shot in "Kekexili" and co-produced by National Geographic Society, director Lu Chan mixes crisp images of icy mountains and a star-crowded sky with barren landscapes. Like Zhang Yimou, Lu Chan is a rare Chinese film-maker, who takes on a noncommittal-observational mode in narrating this story. The poachers here, are not working for some corrupt businessman. They are just scrambling Chinese and Tibetan peasants, who try to save themselves from poverty by way of the West's thriving market for fur. The film can be categorized as "ethnographic film-making", since it takes us to locations few of us are likely to visit and introduces us to estranged cultures (where they feed the corpse to vultures). Cinematographer Cao Yu takes full benefit of the awesome Tibetan landscape and also perfectly captures the nightmarish moments. Patrol man trapped by quick sand, a vast land littered with hundreds of antelopes are just few examples of the gorgeous camera work.
As Ri Tai, Duobuji finds a way to make his activities seem a innate expression of the character's personality. Whether his action of sending an elderly poacher off on a trek that may kill him or the way he deals with his under-lings, his heart is philosophically opposed to the other. The supporting actors are mostly non-professional actors. Many members of the crew (including Lu Chan) were hospitalized for altitude sickness. Some of the uncompromising images might disturb sensitive viewers. However, these scenes and images are necessary, since we need to know, what the 'mountain patrol' is fighting for. Many detractors name the movie as Chinese propaganda (the Chinese eventually declared this area as 'animal reserve'). They argue that it is a way of showing, what good has come out of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. While there is some truth in that view, "Mountain Patrol" remains mostly as an epic story of white-knuckle tension and provides us with an window to peer through a harsh, unearthly beauty.
"Mountain Patrol: Kekexili" is a harrowing tale of brave Tibetan souls. It is morally complex, grimly realistic and richly panoramic.
Kekexili (Mountain Patrol) -- IMDb